Musical genres are known for their cyclical behaviour. Just take a gander at the 90s retreading that has swept through the indie rock movement over the last 12 months. Soul has been one genre that has, for the most part, remained stuck in past decades, resigned to a world of romantic notions and passionate counterculture identity. We had neo-soul in the 90s but true soul showmanship, once fluent in the likes of James Brown, The Temptations, Al Green and Aretha Franklin, has all but sizzled out in the eyes of many. There have been odd dashes of unappreciated soul, such as Mayer Hawthorne, and elements of old soul creeping into modern pop, as in Winehouse, Adele et al. Finally, with the rocketing success of Aloe Blacc, we may get some more truly soulful artists forging their way into the modern age.
Somerset House hosted the man as part of the historical buildings Summer Series of performances, bringing a buzzing crowd into the interior of the brick walls that encased this sonic soul showcase. A proper backing band are often the key to that retro sound that so many 60s artists developed. Motown’s house band, The Funk Brothers, were the vital cog in creating that unique mixture of pop, rhythm n’ blues and funk that created the signature soul sound of the era. So, seeing The Grand Scheme pile on before the star of the show was a perfect introduction to the night’s entertainment. The band ran through a quick medley of Aloe Blacc’s biggest hits so far before the man himself charged on to give a boundless performance of ‘Hey Brother’. He went on to give shout-outs to his inspirations and predecessors, Gaye, Green, Brown and Wonder, before cementing his place in the modern history of soul with a blinding performance that enraptured a consistently grooving audience.
A mixture of audience involvement, smooth feet and a velvety voice combined naturally within a series of beautiful performances, with a personal highlight being his wonderfully sublime cover of ‘Femme Fatale’. To see a soul singer craft a riveting rendition of a track from The Velvet Underground sounds like a peculiar routine but Aloe obviously saw the old-school soul inherent in the piece, eking out a haunting version. Furthermore, Aloe Blacc was originally a rapper, working with producer Exile as a duo called Emanon. Actually, he still works within the hip-hop world, with the duo releasing their seventh (!!) album later this year. To elated applause, he decided to unleash a little bit of this previously unknown skill over a version of ‘Love and Happiness’, an Al Green track (although, the soul fan inside me wished he had crooned out a version of the track in it’s entirety…).
Yet another revival from old school soul comes in the content of Aloe’s words, choosing to produce lyrics that challenge social matters, from politicians (and their ineptitude) to the spiralling economic crisis. His biggest hit, ‘I Need A Dollar’, depicts the fragility of one’s career path as well as the downward trajectory of those crushed in the capitalist cogs of industry. Thankfully, the depression is a minor element of the concert, with Aloe opting to incite dancing as often as possible. He even begins a ‘soul train’ of sorts, creating a crack down the middle of the crowd to allow couples to shake their way forward in the vein of the classic TV show.
So, is this the soul for the new generation? Well, maybe not. Aloe’s audience was primarily middle-aged music fans longing for a new, fresh face in the soul scene, with so many of the early progenitors popping their clogs recently. However, a smattering of young faces provided some small hope for the future of soul and I can only pray that a selection of young things (maybe even a young rapper or two) take to the microphone and start to sing their souls out. But, for now, Aloe is here to bring soul back to the people.