Neo-soul band St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ first time playing in the state of Washington was Saturday, and a sold-out crowd at the Tractor Tavern rewarded the Birmingham, Ala., band for their journey by showering them with affection.
It was a night of old sounds made new, especially with Seattle band Radio Raheem opening things up. They’re a quirky outfit that mashes together everything from 80s music and a little rap with a little neo-soul/funk vibe. It’s a mouthful, but it’s reflective of the band’s multiple influences, all built around highlighting frontwoman Josie Howell’s commanding vocals.
That versatility worked well on songs like “Summer Anthem,” which despite feeling somewhat disjointed saved itself with a nice hook during the chorus that had the crowd dancing. Some things worked better than others; the rapping never felt forced but it wasn’t great, either, while the saxophone solos reinforced the 80s sound and added some vital energy.
Radio Raheem didn’t really start to reveal its true intentions until nearly halfway through their set, when the band uncorked “Glorious.” Off their 2013 EP “Raheem Rising,” the song started with a quirky beat before letting Howell unleash her powerful voice, which cut through the room like a laser.
The crowd-participation number “Push the Party” off the band’s 2012 full-length “Down for the Get Down” could have been an effective closer, but the band chose “Burning Down the House” instead. Covers are dangerous territory sometimes, but Radio Raheem aced a fun version that was perfectly paired with Howell’s engaging presence. It ended up being the perfect moment to leave on.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones probably didn’t need such a solid opener. The crowd was ready to feed them love from the get-go. By the time lead singer Paul Janeway cooed the opening lines to the cheery earworm “Sugar Dyed,” off the band’s 2014 debut “Half the City,” the room had turned to a sea of involuntarily moving limbs and feet.
It is 2014 and looks should not matter, but the visual of a very young Phillip Seymour Hoffman doing his best James Brown impression was nevertheless fascinating. In truth, it was impressive to watch Janeway hold court, and he never really came close to an impression. That is the realm of comedians and late-night talk show hosts.
Instead, what Janeway managed to accomplish was something more along the lines of homage. The crowd loved his screams and howls but songs like “All Torn Up” were equally impressive, when he and his crackerjack backing sextet practiced impressive subtlety after several wall-of-sound numbers. The band played with several sounds throughout the night, from some saucy funk to heavy, sullen blues like on “Half the City,” which came alive thanks to the roaring guitar of Browan Lollar.
There were more than a few people outside the venue scrounging for tickets, even as the band began to play. Next time St. Paul comes to Seattle, he should bless his many followers and find a bigger venue. After Saturday, they’re sure to fill it.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails