Tony Hall and the New Orleans Soul Stars’ Tribute to James Brown (First Jazz Fest Weekend) Saturday, April 25, Congo Square, 12:30 p.m.
“You can’t fake the funk,” declares Tony Hall of his and the New Orleans Soul Stars’ keeping it real attitude when performing the music of the late great James Brown.
Hall, a monster musician who boasts some mighty creds and presently plays bass and sings with Dumpstaphunk—what’s funkier than funk spelled phunk?—has been leading this band on guitar and vocals for eight years for its annual celebration of Brown’s birthday on May 3, 1933. “It’s rehearsed. It’s not thrown together,” promises Hall. “If you’re really going to play that stuff, you have to really know the music and play it correctly.”
Okay, so the big question is who is the James Brown of the band? “I am,” Hall announces with a laugh. “Tony Hall—I am James Brown. I’m not a dancer, but I can do ‘the James Brown’ and I do a split a couple of times.”
Hall, who has been in bands since he was nine years old, switching from drums to bass when he was 16, remembers playing a couple of Brown’s hits during one of his first live performances. “I was a special guest drummer with my uncle [vocalist] Curley Moore, and we did ‘I Got the Feeling’ and ‘Cold Sweat.’”
“I’m all about James Brown,” declares Hall, remarking on his musical innovations. “Before [Brown], there was doo-wop and the Motown sound, but there wasn’t no strong back beat. You never had the drums and bass in your face until James showed up.”
With a few adjustments, the seven-piece band works primarily on the James Brown band’s original arrangements. “We’re not getting away from where it is, we’re just adding some things to it,” Hall explains.
The group includes saxophonist Jeff Watkins, who spent 12 years—1994 through 2006—with Brown. “All these guys lived this music,” says Watkins of Hall and the Soul Stars. “Any one of them could have been in a slot in the [James Brown] band.”
“Roderick Paulin is killin’ it,” praises Hall of the saxophonist. “He’s got the personality. He’ll grab the microphone and get the crowd hyped up.”
“Roderick is awesome—he has a very Maceo Parker-ish tone,” agrees Watkins. Renard Poche holds the duel assignments of guitarist and trombonist. Watkins describes his approach to the trombone as very “Fred Wesley-ish.”
Drummer Raymond Weber gets down on the funk and, Hall notes, a fun spirit when he enthusiastically introduces the band and adds vocal punctuation ala the Famous Flames’ vocalist Bobby Byrd. Rounding out the Soul Stars are trumpeter Tracy Griffin and bassist Vitas Jones.
“James is the original funk master,” Hall declares. “He inspired people like Prince—Prince wants to be James Brown. He’s doing those James Brown grooves. That’s something that’s lived on.”