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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

We Call It Soul

Posted By on Wed, Oct 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Lately, it seems that every former indie rocker on earth has decided to start a soul band. But with a touch of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, some crate digging, a suspiciously devout devotion to Waxpoetics and a hipster's appreciation of hip hop, they rarely know their way around a ballad, appear utterly ignorant of the music's countrified Southern roots and often play it far from funky. Enter the polar opposite, from Oxford, Miss.: Wiley and the Checkmates!

Admittedly, retired cobbler Wiley was first inspired to reactivate his legendary '60s show band after hearing local punk rockers rehearse at the bar next door to his shoe repair shop. Thankfully, his indie rock "cred" ends there. Countless frat parties, weddings and club gigs later, his second album resounds with a sophisticated grit and pulsating funk that's seldom been heard since the halcyon days of legendary Southern studios like Fame, Muscle Shoals Sound and Stax. A master singer, storyteller and songwriter, Wiley presides over a horn-heavy lineup whose sanctified secret weapon, drummer Anthony "Big Amp" Wortham, was plucked directly from his day job pounding the skins at the local Baptist church. Guitarist J.D. Mark and percussionist Matty Crockett contribute songwriting, production and general atmospheric duties to great effect: Mark's deep soul gems — "I Did My Part," "All The Way Wrong" and "Have You Been Crying" — could easily be waxed by Bettye LaVette or Solomon Burke. But then again, they've already been perfected by Wiley. His autobiographical "I Don't Want No Funky Chicken" on the other hand, seems reserved strictly for the man who wrote it. 

Finally, it's hard to imagine anyone capturing the entire arc of country soul in one fell swoop as well as Wiley does when he sings Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billy Joe" over the Checkmates' snaky rendition of Booker T. and the M.G.'s "Hip Hug-Her." Call it what you please. I call that soul indeed.

Wiley and the Checkmates play Friday, Oct. 30, at PJ's Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668; With Melvin Davis and the Party Stompers. 

Michael Hurtt writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to


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