MAHALIA BARNES & The Soul Mates
Mascot / Provogue
Because Mahalia’s band sounds so good on this set of songs, let’s name them upfront : Farnco Raggatt ( gtr), Clayton Doley ( keys ), Lachlan Doley ( keys ), Ben Rodgers ( bass ), David Hibbard ( drums ), Yanya Boston ( perc ), Darren Percival, Jade MacRae, Juanita Tippins ( bv’s) – all recorded at Freight Train out in Sydney, Australia. The other notable muso on this set is none other than Joe Bonamassa the ace guitar man, who happened to mention this when we were talking together about his own last release. Now as I told Joe I know the original material by Betty Davis inspiring this album really well, I bought the import and Island albums as they came out waaay back…I did wonder how Joe would approach the project but I kinda knew he would get the right vibe, knowing what he had attained with the Rock Candy cats.
Brief background, Betty Davis the singer has nothing to do with the scary Hollywood actress and screen partner of Joan Crawford. She was the young wife of jazz legend Miles Davis, no less, for a while. Her albums had a unique and way-ahead-of-her-time funk attack, clavinet and electric guitar spitting out riffs over James Brown / Meters drumming and very cool laidback electric basslines, over which barely-contained sonic maelstrom our Betty would roar and coo out her lyrics. These were a melee of wit, scathing commentary, impassioned sexiness and drag-you-to-bed feistiness. Not the greatest tuneful singer in the world but one with the strongest drive delivery and taunting horniness. At the time, none of my musical friends could stand to listen to it. Mind you these were the ones who had sneered at Velvet Underground when I suggested they check them out or lent them albums and then a few years later tried to tell me about this great chap called Lou Reed that they had discovered. Me, I loved it all and soaked up the staggered rhythms and splintery guitar tones, regretting that I’d likely never get to meet her. And I still haven’t….
I always dreamed that maybe Nikka Costa and Vernon Reid might team up and play some of the Betty Davis material…..however here we have the belting vocal talent and stylish delivery of it all by Jimmy Barnes’ daughter, Mahalia. She has kindly via her label completed one of our 20 Questions pieces which we are featuring on our site, so you can see what she is about.
Bonamassa instinctively knows that adding guitar to these tracks mostly means self-editing into meshing with the band sound then lashing out with harsh curling licks. The occasional axe solo sounds great ( of course ) but like James Brown music, the mix of chattering keys and stuttering guitar work is what gives the spot-on platform for our little lioness to sing over. Barnes’ performances are magical and apposite to the songs. Hence a whole new set of music fans are led to the rainbow funk fountain of Betty Davis’ recordings. And hey, Joe B is doing the same with his current tributes to Muddy and Wolf. I always contend, fans make the best music as long as they bring something of their own to the party and don’t just Xerox the originals.
What’s good here ? All of it, the spirit of the project is sustained throughout. But twist my arm and I’ll point you at the churning and vengeful opener ‘If I’m In Luck..’, full-blooded Hammond and echoplexed guitar dives, hammer-ons et al. Then the loping crank of ‘He Was A Big Freak’ and sly tread of ‘Game Is My Middle Name’ ; then ‘Nasty Gal’ with its spitting tumble and emphases. You can picture the band smiling at each other as the music bounces around the studio. For sheer edginess the take on ‘ You Won’t See Me In The Morning’ would leave even Chaka Khan in the rear-view mirror. ‘Walking Up The Road’ might just be the best vocal performance here and the ensemble puts just enough airiness in the instrumentation to roll the tune just so. To his credit, Bonamassa brings a distinct vibe to these recordings that is nothing like his foil work with Beth Hart which is equally good for different reasons.
A churning, burning, fiery smoking of great material by a masterful and exciting chanteuse.