News Column

'Musically, I feel excited': Barrence Whitfield and his R&B band reunite to release 'Dig Thy Savage Soul'

September 6, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 06--Barrence Whitfield's turbocharged voice is still hot enough to sizzle bacon fat.

Whitfield, 58, burns through R&B and jump blues like he first did almost 30 years ago with his bandmates, The Savages. He deserves every bit of his label's billing him as a "soul screamer of the highest order."

But, as the Boston-based singer has shown over the years, he can shift gears smoothly into gut-wrenching deep soul and crackling garage rock.

"That R&B is still my bread and butter," he said recently, reached at his home. "It's what I do and what I love, but I've been able to evolve."

Whitfield's range and power, evoking Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and other giants, shine on the new album "Dig Thy Savage Soul," the latest effort of the reunited Barrence Whitfield & The Savages.

Released on Chicago's Bloodshot Records to glowing reviews, the album presents a scorching roadhouse mix, from the slamming Sonics-inspired opener and boxing ode "The Corner Man," to the Southern soul of "Hey Little Girl" and "I'm Sad About It."

"Musically, I feel excited these days," Whitfield said. "This record is probably one of the biggest records I've done, not even in a long time but forever, because of the response of the journalists and critics and other people."

Whitfield and original Savages guitarist Peter Greenberg and bass player Phil Lenker are sure to dip into their greasy gumbo -- and maybe peel some paint off the walls -- when they come to Webster's Cafe in State College on Sept. 14.

The show will double both as a record release party and an anniversary bash for local record collector and dealer, Josh Ferko, who owns the Stax of Trax Records shop in the cafe and is celebrating 40 years in the record business.

Ferko has known Whitfield, a close friend, since the singer was tearing up obscure R&B gems such as "The Georgia Slop," "King Kong," "Big Mamou" and "Sadie Green" back in the 1980s. He first brought Whitfield and The Savages to State College for a pair of legendary shows at the end of the decade.

After hearing the band, which broke up in 1995 but got back together 15 years later, at the Billtown Blues Festival this year in Hughesville, Ferko had a proposition. Over spinning records at his State College home, he asked Whitfield about returning for a gig.

Whitfield readily agreed, setting in motion a show Ferko promises will be "a dance party."

"It's high energy," he said of a typical blistering Barrence Whitfield & The Savages performance. "Barrence is as crazy as ever."

The band's current sound owes as much to Greenberg, who co-wrote the album's songs and contributes the same high-voltage but soulful guitar that once drove the noted garage bands DMZ, the Lyres and the Customs.

Greenberg, a soul and rockabilly aficionado, said he felt freer to indulge his rock and soul tastes than he did on the band's first two records. Back then, he said, he consciously played in a straight New Orleans R&B style out of respect for the music.

"When you're young and you're less decisive, you worry about what people think," he said from his home in Taos, N.M. "At least now, it's like who cares? You just do what you want to do."

Growing up in Newark, N.J., Whitfield listened to gospel legends such as Archie Brownlee and the Rev. Julius Cheeks on the radio and bought James Brown singles. Today, he works in a record store and considers himself a musicologist, educating the public about America's diverse and rich musical heritage.

His world travels and friendships with musicians and collectors such as Greenberg have broadened his horizons, continuing to shape him as a singer.

"You always give an air to different styles of music," Whitfield said. "We just love it. That's how I meet most of the people in my life, though this."

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(c)2013 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.)

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