In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Keith Richards gave the ultimate compliment to St. Paul and the Broken Bones when he called the James Brown-channeling soul singer Paul Janeway and his band "interesting to watch." "He's a cat that can do an Otis Redding," Richards told Stone, and if you saw the Birmingham, Alabama, sextet this past Saturday at the Culture Room, you'd most assuredly agree with the man.
At 9:45, three horn players, a guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer took the stage looking rather sharp. With their clean-cut looks and retro-soul sound, you could be forgiven for confusing them with a Southern church band, and after an extended instrumental intro, out came their spiritual leader: St. Paul.
Paul Janeway is a formidable figure onstage, an old-school cat who rocks thick-framed prescription glasses. On this night, he donned a black suit with a red shirt and handkerchief tucked into his jacket pocket, shoes glittering. He looked somewhat like how a young Roger Ebert might if he were dressing up as a pimp for Halloween. But when he opened his mouth — good God — you could mistake him for Al Green.
As Janeway crooned to the audience, winking intermittently, I couldn't help but revel in just how beautifully jarring of a voice the man has when matched up to his computer-programmeresque looks.
"We're going to give you all we've got tonight, since this is our last show before we hit the studio," he told a mostly filled Culture Room at the band's first South Florida show. Janeway seemed pleased with the crowd's enthusiasm, joking that he couldn't hear what praises they were shouting at him and reprimanding them at the unmistakeable scent of marijuana.
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As otherworldly talented as St. Paul is and as competent as his backing band the Broken Bones are, they could still use a few more standout songs if they want to stretch beyond being merely a pleasant surprise live. Midway through the set, their original compositions at times lacked the pull to keep all the audience engaged after the novelty of Janeway's vocal talent wore off.
But on the final song of their main set, "Make It Rain," when Janeway brought out A.J. Haynes, lead singer of openers the Seratones, to duet with him, he just may have unlocked a secret to how the band could break through to that next level. Haynes' feminine voice challenged St. Paul's dominating vocals and helped draw out its different dimensions. It was so great that when he said the show was over, the reengaged crowd responded with boos. He relented: "If you're sweet to us, we'll come back for more."
After some loud cheering, they did return to play four more songs. During the encore, you could hear it wasn't just a singing partner that made "Make It Rain" stand out; it could have also been the fact that they were playing a cover (by Tom Waits). In the encore, they proceeded to kill the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long," driving home the fact that, with their original songs, they haven't yet found that perfect balance between paying homage and writing catchy original music.
That's fine, since St. Paul and the Broken Bones have plenty of novelty and musicality to get by for now.