Duke University's Soul Power series examines the roots of a heterogeneous and uniquely American genre. Legends Mavis Staples and Solomon Burke are featured alongside cerebral turntablist DJ Spooky and DJ/producer/musical mastermind King Britt and the Philadelphia based Sylk130 collective. Britt and his loosely affiliated soul-funk dream team brought a survey of Philadelphia's soul history as reinterpreted by the best of the city's contemporary scene to Reynolds Auditorium and proved that these artists deserve their spot as much as the generation before them.
"A Tribute to Philly Soul" might not boast the cachet of an appearance by King Solomon Burke (himself a Philadelphia native), but this look into one of our country's most vibrant musical microcosms should have been mandatory for fans of the Soul Power series' more famous acts.
While Motown pumped out catchy, pop-tinged records, Philly soul is known for lush orchestration and highly produced sheen — think "Love Train" or "Me and Mrs. Jones." Production duos like the Philadelphia International label's Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff made the city's scene famous in the early 1970s, but the presence of jazz greats like John Coltrane and James Brown set the music in motion for future generations of Philly artists."
Britt alone bookended the performance casually mixing Björk vocals, hip-hop beats, and staticky blips into a pre-show sound montage, and then stayed behind for a Q&A session with the evening's MC, Philly radio DJ Dyana Williams. But the concert proper featured Sylk130, a group of singers and instrumentalists whose individual credits include performing with Jay-Z and the Roots to professional skateboarding to producing artists like Les Nubians and Ursula Rucker.
This incarnation of the collective featured the inhuman vocal skills of Jaguar Wright and Lady Alma Horton's fierce sing-preaching, with Tanja Dixon and Allison Crockett rounding out the vocals. Cornetist Jafar Barron and keyboardist Jim Lint took turns gilding the melodies of each tune, while producer/guitarist Tim Motzer and producer/bassist Tom Spiker drove propulsive, elastic rhythms with multi-instrumentalist/skateboarder Chuck Treece on drums. Britt oversaw the stage from behind his mixing boards intent on keeping his hometown's star power in the spotlight.
After Williams' introductions and a whirlwind primer on Philly soul, the evening's featured vocalists made a suitably diva-esque entrance to an extended (but venue-appropriate) version of "Lady Marmalade," made popular by Philadelphian Patti Labelle's eponymous funk girl group. Forget untouchable divas like Beyoncé or girl-group reject types like Amy Winehouse — these women and Sylk 130's brash beats and exuberant performance style are most at home on the dance floor. It wasn't long before Horton had the audience up and clapping along. Wright's impassioned melisma boosted her self-penned homage to childhood and family, "Lineage," and Crockett joined her for the fluttering, scat-sung cascades of harmony on the title line of the Gamble/Huff tune "Don't Let It Go to Your Head."
During the vocalists' break, the remaining members traded solos on an MFSB-style jam, with Lint's jagged, playful keyboard lines and bassist Spiker's laid-back yet virtuosic style standing out. The instrumentals flowed into the disco-esque "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," on which Britt raps a short segment and Horton and Dixon bring the volume down to a tense whisper and back up in a powerful dual cadenza. Sylk 130 closed with the bright, anthemic "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" by another Philadelphia International production team, McFadden & Whitehead.
On a program called "A Tribute to Philly Soul," Britt and Sylk 130 would be expected to revel in tradition, and they did, sharing some of the best soul music from one of the genre's capital cities. But this demonstration of astounding chops and infectious passion for the spirit of Philly soul showed that the future of this music can be just as inspiring as its past.