From Johannesburg to Carolina

Neo soul, indie soul, retro soul, or whatever you call it comes 'n' goes in waves. And these days, the waves are definitely cresting. There's Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Erykah Badu's dazzling return, Quantic Soul Orchestra, the wah-wah grit of Philly's Blue Method, and even them smooth, blue-eyed Brits: Duffy, Lidell, and Winehouse.

Then there's Laura Reed & Deep Pocket, a quartet from Asheville, North Carolina, that falls somewhere in the middle of all this good stuff. "As far as tags go, I consider myself a rhythm-and-blues artist," Reed says, phoning from her Deep Pocket tour van, which weaves its way through Middle America. "We do some retro soul stuff, but we also do stuff that's very contemporary. We're definitely drawing from Stax and Motown, which we fuse with hip-hop, Afrobeat, and all that."

Deep Pocket, as the singer points out, balances the old with the new. But it also tempers the rural with the urban. Like so many bands from hippie mountain towns, Reed and company dig into rich, earthy grooves shaded with world-music undertones and lyrics expounding love and consciousness. Beyond that, however, they have little in common with the average trustafarian funk project. Soul : Music, Deep Pocket's debut album, released in March 2007, documents a band more dedicated to tight, organ-based songcraft than jam-band wankery. "We like a lot of low end instead of guitar solos and all that kind of stuff," says Reed, whose acoustic guitar is the band's only ax.

Reed and company don't explore African rhythms as vigorously as, say, NOMO or the Budos Band, a Dap-Kings spin off. But when they do, the band wisely exercises restraint and subtlety, careful to avoid the clumsy, mash-up quality of so much global fusion post-Peter Gabriel's Real World endeavor.

The singer's upbringing, in particular her Zulu nanny, deserves some credit for this. "She tied me to her back so she could do the things she had to do for her day," explains Reed, who was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Being really close to the [Zulu] villages, you would hear the township music. People singing is just a feature of everyday life."

She also draws inspiration from modern South African pop, artists like Simphiwe Dana. "She fuses jazz, R&B, and African rhythms," Reed says. "There's a movement in the country right now fusing neo-soul and jazz. It's real fresh."

Yet too much shouldn't be made of Reed's exotic heritage. After her family relocated to North Carolina in the early '90s, she did what so many do when moving "down South." She fell in love with classic Southern soul: slow, gritty, and stripped like a Lexus abandoned on a Memphis highway.

And that's what Deep Pocket is all about.

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Justin F. Farrar