BY STEVE WILSON
When Barrence Whitfield and the Savages launch into “The Corner Man,” the lead track on their powerful new collection Dig Thy Savage Soul, you hear a lot of history. It’s an audible wave, at once straight and jagged, between early rocking soulsters like Don Covay and the MC5, and every punk rocker that drew from the blues instead of art school ineffectuality.
Somewhere along this line lie the Lyres, Boston’s minimalist garage rockers, whose short, sharp declarations sounded like punk but were never far from rhythm ‘n’ blues roots. And from the Lyres came guitarist Peter Greenberg, who worked with Whitfield at a record shop, called Nuggets in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and encouraged him to sing publicly. Since Whitfield’s birth name Barry White was already in use by the “Walrus of Love,” Greenberg redubbed him Barrence Whitfield to bar any unfortunate confusion.
The early Savages records, featuring Greenberg, demonstrate his good ear for talent. It still resonates. On Dig, Whitfield testifies. Whitfield emotes. He enunciates. Now, still potent, still strongest straining at the top end of his range, Whitfield is as powerful at fifty-eight as at any time in his career. And the reunited Savages, essentially dormant since the mid-nineties, sound better than ever. Peter Greenberg (DMZ, Lyres) burns through these tracks like a house on fire. Equal parts Steve Cropper, Otis Rush, and Johnny Thunders, Greenberg’s playing sets the tone the Savages maintain. His blistering solo on “Hangman’s Token” is worth the price of admission alone.
While Whitfield’s material is based on blues and r ‘n’ b archetypes, the songs have plenty of personality and distinction. Sometime lyricist Michael Mooney, a pal of Greenberg’s, is a major reason why. Who else (David Johansen, maybe) could write a song like Oscar Levant, an homage to a little remembered pop-classical pianist and mordant wit from the Nineteen-fifties – and rhyme “petulance” and “events.” Mooney’s “Hangman’s Token” is a bluesy treatise on economic justice that swings savagely. His sly, hipster (think beatnik, not Williamsburg) lyrics are a force throughout Dig Thy Savage Soul.
Of course Barrence and the boys also provide plenty of basic sex, sweat and sleaze. His Howlin’ Wolf whisper on “Daddy’s Gone to Bed” is dirty sweet – imagine the Blasters, but r-a-w. Tom Quartulli, a stone descendant of Lee Allen and Junior Walker, powers “Hey Little Bird,” the Savages rolling like Fats Domino, rocking like the New York Dolls. Dig drummer Andy Jody – appropriately named, playing like the soul-fired equivalent of Jody Stephens, driving, and heavy on the fills, raging on the ride like Ringo himself.
Whitfield’s no-shit soul testifying lights up “I’m Sad About It,” summoning the ghosts of O.V. Wright and Bobby “Blue” Bland, reaching for a James Brown falsetto, executing a soul man’s tour de force. Dig Thy Savage Soul’s rollicking conclusion, “Turn Your Damper Down,” a Jerry “Boogie” McCain party stopper features a driving riff at the intersection of Carl Perkins and Jimmy Rogers, which Greenberg plays like a man possessed. Jody’s drumming is fevered, pounding his crash like it was a ride, and above it all Whitfield’s commanding vocal – an evocation and extension of every hard shouting jump blues man from H-Bomb Ferguson to descendants like Little Richard. It’s at once wrenching and jubilant, a perfect set capper.
Call it a comeback. Call it a rebirth. Welcome back Barrence. Dig Thy Savage Soul rocks.
DOWNLOAD: “The Corner Man,” “I’m Sad About It”
Barrence & Crew are featured in issue #14 of BLURT. Go here to read the extended interview with the titular Savage frontman.