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A soulful auld lang syne

On New Year's Eve (and plenty of other nights), you'll find plenty of Austin bands that take cues from Stax and Motown.

Patrick Caldwell

The soul scene in Austin isn't a new creature - it extends all the way back to the genre's origins, when the East Side's Victory Grill was one of the prominent venues on the Chitlin' Circuit, a string of performance spaces that were safe for African American artists during the ages of segregation and Jim Crow. And it's always been a component of the city's many funk bands, from the obscene and obscenely entertaining Scabs to the Latin-influenced dance parties of Grupo Fantasma and Brownout. The soul-influenced stylings of blues great W.C. Clark have captivated the city since the 1960s, and a Soul Happening (née Waxploitation) became one of Austin's most-adored DJ troupes by spinning a brilliantly curated mix of vintage soul and funk.

But waltz into any of the soul scene's anchor venues these days - the Hole in the Wall, Momo's, the Continental Club and T.C.'s Lounge, among others - and you'll notice a preponderance of young soul bands taking their cues from the horn-laden grooves of classic Stax and Motown 45s. Most have expansive memberships and energetic live shows mixing original songs with a plethora of covers from Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, the Bar-Kays and other legends of soul. And almost all of them have memberships composed primarily of players younger than 35 - young cats who were but a gleam in their parents' eyes during the genre's heyday.

An expanding lineup of emerging local soul artists - including T-Bird and the Breaks, Akina Adderley and the Vintage Playboys, Soul Track Mind and Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, one of the city's biggest breakout artists in 2009 - often share members and play on one another's albums.

'I was born here, and there's always been a soul element. If I said there wasn't, I know I'd get some e-mails,' says Paul Oveisi, owner of Momo's, chairman of the Austin Live Music Task Force and a devoted shepherd of the scene. 'But you didn't see it anywhere near as healthy as it is now. Austin's not known for soul. Traditionally it's rock and blues. I love that we're starting to get more notice for diversity instead of being just pegged for those two.'

'What I love about it is that it's a no-frills experience to watch. It immediately affects you. It's not background music,' says Ben McCormack, who's booked many of the city's emerging soul bands at the Hole in the Wall. 'It's music that immediately affects sort of a primal part of everybody.'

That kind of music is well-suited for New Year's Eve and its crowds of happy revelers - and, conveniently, many of the scene's brightest stars will be performing that evening, getting audiences moving on the last night of 2009. We profile four of the city's best - all playing Dec. 31 - below, and also take a peek at some of the scene's other players.

T-Bird and the Breaks

Midnight Dec. 31

The Continental Club

1315 S. Congress Ave.

$15

www.continentalclub.com

There's no part of Tim Crane that doesn't scream 'soul star' - whether it's the background story, with its unelaborated-upon troubles with the law, the finger-picking country blues-playing father, the five siblings or the fixation with vinyl. Chatting about his music over a cup of coffee in South Austin, he even looks the part, with a snappy gray fedora, the latest issue of soul/funk magazine Waxploitation on the table and a couple of spirals full of lyrics at the ready.

Crane, 27, leads the enthusiastic, analog soul collective T-Bird and the Breaks, one of Austin's most rapidly rising soul groups, known for infectious, full-bodied grooves. He grew up in a musical family in western Massachusetts, picking up piano, guitar and drums along the way. Record shops were his second home, the dusty rows of stacked vinyl his occasional surrogate parents. Crane's love of blues expanded to a fascination with soul, and record stores offered him a crash course in his passion.

'I'd go find more records by the people who produced that record, the people who played on that record, the people who wrote songs on that record,' says Crane. 'It just expanded out.'

He dabbled in a blues rock band but ultimately made the decision to fly the coop - 'Western Massachusetts was just the kind of town you run away from, you know?' - and bought a train pass to tour the country and look for a music scene that would be friendly to the swinging soul band he was building in his mind. He hit up Philadelphia, New York, Nashville, New Orleans and Los Angeles - but it was Austin and its loyal audience that stuck with him.

'It seemed like the thing everybody did was go out to see music that night, even on weeknights, whether it was young people or old people,' Crane says. 'I just dug the way people paid attention to music here. I felt like it was everywhere. And I knew this is where I needed to be.'

He asked around town and scoured Craigs­list to build T-Bird and the Breaks. Longtime friend Sam Patlove moved to Austin to help out, and the band spent sixth months building a live show before eventually debuting with a regular gig at Momo's in late 2007. Two years later they're filling up the Continental Club on a regular basis and have released one of the year's best local debuts, hooky slice of soul perfection 'Learn About It.' Ask Crane to explain the appeal behind his chosen genre, and he'll echo a common theme: authenticity.

'It's just that real funk, soul, blues, anything gritty, it just feels like home to me. It's like "Now you're talking to me." I get really excited,' Crane says. 'It's like a bang. Hits me like a ton of bricks.'

The band hits the studio regularly these days. They're two months into a six-month project that has the group releasing a new 7-inch vinyl every 30 days. For a man who came of age scouring the bins at his local record shop, it's all a bit unbelievable.

'This all would have sounded like a dream to me a couple of years ago, to have a lot of people interested in my music and to play sold-out shows and to put music on vinyl,' Crane says. 'You know how they say junkies have triggers? That's how I get listening to records. The art, the liner notes, the analog technology, all that stuff. I love it.'

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears

9 p.m. Dec. 31

Stubb's

801 Red River St.

With Hard Proof Afrobeat

Technically sold out

www.stubbsaustin.com

The story is almost too good to be true - a young blues cat from Round Rock toils away in relative obscurity, gigging mainly at campus club the Hole in the Wall and supporting himself with an unglamorous job at Quality Seafood. But add a horn section and a harsh shot of Stax-inspired Memphis soul, and two years later he's the toast of the town, opening for Spoon, playing Lollapalooza, touring Europe and hitting late night talk shows in the United States and abroad.

So it goes for Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, almost certainly the soul scene's most visible outfit. The band formed in 2007 after Lewis, 28, opened for Little Richard on the University of Texas campus, injecting extra pep into his primal blues shout and sonically expanding the young talent's options.

'I remember when I first got together with Joe, we were thinking it was like an original idea. We were like "We'll add a horn section to the band, and we'll be the only people doing that,''' recalls Zach Ernst, 23, the band's rhythm guitarist and an instrumental force in its formation. 'And then before we turned around, it seemed like there were some others that were doing it. It's great. It's cool that people are going out to play that kind of stuff and that people are going out to listen to it.'

Their debut album, 'Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!' - produced by Spoon's Jim Eno - is one of the year's best, a furious blast of call-and-response soul. And Lewis, taking more than just sonic inspiration from James Brown, has emerged as one of the hardest-working musicians in Austin, playing a nearly nonstop string of dates across the world in 2009. The increasing visibility of Austin's soul scene is encouraging the group to diversify on new material.

'It's pushing us forward to try to keep doing different stuff. Now there's all these soul bands, so let's maybe work on more rock 'n' roll tunes,' Ernst says. 'It's kind of informed the new material, where we're trying to maybe mix it up even more, extend the definition of what a Black Joe Lewis song is.'

Soul Track Mind

9:30 p.m. Dec. 31

The Hole in the Wall

2538 Guadalupe St.

With the Lost Soul Revue and PJ and the Bear

$10

www.holeinthewallaustin.com

When bass player Gregory Smith, 38, saw an ad on Craigslist looking for someone 'in the vein of Motown and Stax who knows how to groove,' he had a pretty good idea that he'd found the band for him. The Berklee College of Music graduate was a longtime soul fan. (Full disclosure: Smith works for the Austin American-Statesman's marketing department.)

He responded to the ad and found himself blown away by what vocalist Donovan Keith had built in Soul Track Mind, an ebullient, sweaty seven-piece throwback to '60s soul titans like Otis Redding. Keith, 27, arrived in Austin with plans to build a band that paid homage to old-school soul, with a mix of covers and originals. Soul Track Mind played its first gigs in 2008. One year later, they have a rock-solid local reputation formed almost solely on the basis of the word-of-mouth buzz around their astonishing three-hour weekly sets at East Side venue T.C.'s Lounge.

'Soul Track Mind is explosive. The first time I saw them, I was completely floored,' says the Hole in the Wall's Ben McCormack. 'After they played, people came up to me going "Who the hell is that and when are they coming back?'' '

Smith figures Keith's appeal is drawn primarily from two sources - inspiration from mentor Earl Thomas, who's written songs for Etta James and Solomon Burke, and Keith's background as an actor and stand-up comic.

'That kind of leads to how he can work a stage and work a crowd,' Smith says. 'He's very open, and he knows how to flirt with the crowd.'

Those live chops are the foundation for the band's success - and not merely from the audience's perspective. For Smith and the band, it's that connection that makes the entire gig worthwhile.

'That look on people's faces when they're sweaty and looking at you, or with their eyes closed swaying back to the music,' says Smith. 'That's where it's really good.'

Bruce James Soultet

8 p.m. Dec. 31

III Forks

111 Lavaca St.

www.iiiforks.com

In the eyes of pianist and vocalist Bruce James, the man with the rich croon that recalls no one so much as Dr. John, there was never a time Austin didn't have a strong soul scene. He's been a fixture in Austin since moving here in 1995.

'Soul was less visible because certain things were different. But soul music has never left Austin, so to say there's a resurgence wouldn't do the music scene justice,' James says. 'I will give you that it's been more visible and people have taken more of a look at it. That makes me very happy, because that's where my heart is. I've been playing it a long time.'

James, 34, grew up in Houston, the son of a minister of a little nondenominational church in a strip mall. The environment demanded he learn multiple instruments, from the trumpet to the drums. He was encouraged by church bandleader Jerry Martin, a crooner who James says sang like Sam Cooke. James did time with hard-working local band Tunji, playing 250 shows a year in the late '90s. He kicked around with other bands before forming the Bruce James Soultet, a groovy six-piece that released 'Yours, Mine and the Truth' in July. For him, the appeal of soul is primal.

'American soul, the classic soul has that thing you just can't describe. That's why they call it soul music, because that's right where it hits you,' says James. 'It's not very cerebral on any level. It's more about getting hit with the talent in your gut.'

Akina Adderley and the Vintage Playboys

Akina Adderley, 30, has what you'd call a pedigree - she's the granddaughter of legendary jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley, grandniece of saxophonist Julian Edwin 'Cannonball' Adderley and daughter of Nat Adderley Jr., a bandleader for Luther Vandross.

So, naturally, the young Adderley went to Yale and, pointedly, did not study music, taking a leave of absence from the art to 'write some papers and read some Russian novels and stuff.'

'I definitely come from some musical roots, and I tried to rebel from them for a while,' recalls Adderley. 'Some people rebel by becoming musicians, while I tried to rebel by being a secretary for a bit.'

But she couldn't ignore the call. After she fled Los Angeles for Austin with husband Todd Jenkins, a percussion player, she assembled Akina Adderley and the Vintage Playboys, a dynamite nine-piece driven by her rich, emotive pipes. Their self-titled debut, released this year, sizzles with all the right grooves, alternating between enthusiastic cuts and slower, sultrier numbers.

'Soul music is so honest and so raw. It has a lot of energy and emotion and isn't polished,' Adderley says. 'I feel like right now people are hungry to share emotion like that and release it together.'

Greyhounds

Garage soul mavens the Greyhounds - composed of friends Andrew Trube and Anthony Ferrell with a rotating drummer - racked up a lot of miles after forming in Los Angeles in 1999. They toured nonstop, burning through three vans - the most recent with 300,000 miles on it.

But they had to settle down and plant further Austin roots - the band relocated from L.A. early this decade - after Ferrell was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2007. With Ferrell now recovered, the pair are prepping their third album at East Side studio Big Orange for next year, mixing vintage soul sounds with a harder-edged rock influence, a cocktail Trube describes as 'Hall and Oates meets ZZ Top.'

'We do a lot of soul music stuff, but we're trying to put a spin on it,' says Trube, 32. 'That's what's exciting to me about these Austin soul bands. They're taking that old-school sound and giving you something you haven't heard before.'

Felan and Flyjack

The supremely soulful Flyjack started as a side project for the long-established Austin band Nappy but became the main event when it became clear that audiences loved the group's tight grooves and pedal-to-the-metal energy. A weekly Monday residency at Antone's started in 2008 and was for a time one of Austin's most dependably danceable gigs.

The band's undergone some changes since then - horn trio the Hellfire Horns departed alongside vocalist Alejandro Felan to form cracking eight-piece Felan. Flyjack is soldiering on as a slimmed-down unit, with plans to release an EP next year featuring James Brown drummer Jab'o Starks. From time to time it still enlists the Hellfire Horns - who have played with everyone from Bob Schnei­der to the Walkmen -to join the live show. Meanwhile, Felan, still in its early stages, is in the process of forging a sound.

'We're sort of trying to figure things out, because there's this soul resurgence - well, I don't know if it ever surged before - but because of it we're trying to position ourselves in context to all those guys,' says trumpet player Erik Telford, 31. 'What they're doing, they're doing well already, so we want to be unique in some other way.'

Eight soul classics to get you started

Want to get yourself primed before diving into Austin's own extensive soul scene and joining the ever-expanding ranks of the booty-shaking, call-and-response faithful? One of the best ways to prepare is to bone up on the classics of soul music - but with a genre that stretches back more than five decades and offers up enough great works to fill Waterloo Records a dozen times over, where to begin?

We posed the question to Tim Crane and Bruce James, who each offered up four essential soul albums that can set you on your way.

Tim Crane recommends:

Otis Redding, 'The Dock of the Bay,' 1968

James Brown, 'The Payback,' 1973

Sly and the Family Stone, 'There's a Riot Goin' On,' 1971

Curtis Mayfield, 'Curtis,' 1970

Bruce James recommends:

Stevie Wonder, 'Songs in the Key of Life,' 1976

Marvin Gaye, 'What's Going On,' 1971

Sam Cooke, 'Night Beat,' 1963

Ray Charles, 'Ray Charles Invites You to Listen,' 1967