Alt-Nation: Barrence Whitfield & The Savages – Under the Savage Sky (Bloodshot Records)


bwBarrence Whitfield and The Savages have been kicking up a rock ‘n’ roll ruckus off and on for over 30 years. Whitfield and The Savages were known for their bruising take on R&B and soul with reckless garage rock-fueled abandon. It was like some combination of Sam Cooke, Don Covay and Little Richard being backed by The Seeds. The garage rock wasn’t a surprise given Whitfield founded the band with Peter Greenberg who was already a Boston garage punk legend for his time in DMZ and The Lyres. With any band that has been around that long, there is always a question of whether they still have it. Can they still rock or are they like a boxer all punched out and hanging onto the ropes for dear life? The Savages may have been in the latter category for a while; they did take a 16-year hiatus between albums before 2011’s Savage Kings (Bloodshot Records) that had Whitfield reunite with founding guitarist Peter Greenberg and Phil Lenker. If Savage Kings showed that Whitfield and The Savages are rejuvenated and ready to rock, their new album Under the Savage Sky offers all of that and more.

Under the Savage Sky swings coming out of the gates with the ’70s R&B stomp of “I’m a Full Grown Man” and “The Claw.” What really separates Whitfield and The Savages from the garage rock scene they came out of is the groove. They make you want to shake your ass, not sit admiring some craft beer. The saxophone on “Rock ‘N’ Baby” borrows the riff of “Keep on Knockin’” while Whitfield does his best Little Richard impersonation. Under The Savage Sky isn’t just a total party record as more introspective tunes like “Simple Man” and “Full Moon in the Daylight Sky” bring you down to the crossroads where American soul meets the blues. “Angry Hands” has a brooding power that reminds me of The Stooges’ “Gimme Danger” with haunted lyrics like “cruel birds keep taunting me from the trees.” “Katy Didn’t” is one of my favorites with a Stax meets go-go garage chorus that just makes you want to dance all night. With Under the Savage Sky, Barrence Whitfield and The Savages guide you on a 12-step journey through the fiery ends of rock ‘n’ roll.

As much as I enjoyed Under The Savage Sky as a record, Barrence Whitfield and The Savages are most know for their high octane blitz of a live show. They rocked the main theater at the Columbus Theatre this past spring opening for The Sonics, and haven’t been off the road since. With The Savages now on a headlining tour that will take them all around the US and Europe, including another stop at the Columbus Theater this Friday, I decided to call up Barrence to find out what’s shakin’.

Marc Clarkin: What types of influences made you want to become a musician?

Barrence Whitfield: All the soul and rock ‘n’ roll acts of the ’60s like The Kinks, The Who, James Brown, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke … I could go on for hours. We’ve got a mixture of a lot of those elements of the music that we grew up with and is embodied in our souls. We’re just happy that we’re able to put it together through some fine recordings that people are very happy with and excited about.

MC: When and how did the Savages start?

BW: We go back to about 1983 when I first met Peter Greenberg who was with The Lyres and DMZ. He was looking to put together a garage-y soul R&B band with a black singer who can shout and scream like Little Richard.

MC: What was the scene like back in those days?

BW: It was incredible! You could go out any night of the week, especially on weekends. There were many clubs with a lot of our friends playing in them. There was just rich music going everywhere and you’d just be staying out late night and partying. There was just an incredible scene going on back then.

MC: What would you say the difference in today? Lack of places to play?

BW: I would say that. In the past month (in the Boston area) we lost three clubs with Johnny D’s closing at the end of the year in Somerville and TT’s & The Bears closing last month. It’s a new era, especially in that area of Cambridge where there is a lot of money coming from MIT. The money is just changing those areas like Central Square. What you see now is just like what you see in the malls. At least the Middle East is still around.

MC: The band went on a hiatus for a decade.

BW: Peter and Phil, the original members, left in ’86. I put together a band with some other guys that recorded some other records and toured to keep the momentum going till about ’95 when it kind of died down. I continued to travel overseas to different parts of the world performing as well as doing some shows around here. I kept the musical thing going.

MC: Now you are back with Peter and Phil; do you think that’s the best lineup you’ve had?

BW: Oh yeah man, this is a very powerful lineup. Going onstage with these guys is just like magic and the energy is supersonic. Its fun playing with these guys and looking at the reaction from the crowd when we hit the first chord to the last chord.

MC: After all these years, do you ever get the jitters before taking the stage?

BW: No man, I’m ready to go. I’m like a boxer after its prey. I’m still excited to perform whenever I get on the stage.

MC: One song I’ve loved from Savage Kings was “Oscar Levant” who seemed like an interesting Hollywood figure. What inspired that song?

BW: He’s just one of those figures from Hollywood history that people forget about. He was actually a classical genius of a piano player. If you ever watch any of the clips of him playing classical pieces from the late 1930s into the ’40s – the guy was like a child prodigy, but he also had his demons. He was already a celebrity, but he was one of those crazy celebrities. He would say something that was on his mind that would be some crazy thing that would have people going, “What? I don’t believe he just said that.” That was the character of Oscar Levant.

Barrence Whitfield & The Savages will rock the rafters at the Columbus Theater on September 11.  The show is all ages with doors at 8pm and the show at 9pm.

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