T Bird and the Breaks, from Austin, opened the night, their first-ever appearance in the Gateway City. The stripped-down ensemble of guitar, bass, drums and sax backed up singer/front man Tim Crane, a.k.a. T Bird, who was in full persona with his fedora, aviator sunglasses and dance moves that ranged from a stationary strut to a sort of bob 'n' weave.
Unlike fellow Austin native Black Joe Lewis, who approaches soul music with a heavier blues edge, T Bird's stage presence and vocal style lends more of an old-school hip-hop flair to the genre. For example, for an encore the band played "Dancehall Freakin," the title track of its latest EP, which features call-and-response rapping over funky riffs that brings Beastie Boys to mind. The group had reinforced this association earlier in the set by launching into a convincing cover of "Root Down."
T Bird and the Breaks does dabble in several different styles, proof of which was evident in Sunday night's glittery interpretation of Howlin' Wolf's "Evil" and a much more literal cover of Aloe Blacc's "I Need a Dollar." And of course the originals including "Take Time" and "Stand Up" from the 2009 album "Learn About It" are prime examples of how soulful the group can get, even without the full horn section and female backup singers on the record.
However, the group's recent touring partners, the Diplomats of Solid Sound, from Iowa City, lent their soulful singers Sarah Cram and Kathy Ruestow to back up T Bird during "The Clap Hands Song." This was the experience fans of "Learn About It" expected to hear, and it was a high point in the set.
The low point of the night had nothing to do with the music. The weather kept the turnout small, and it seemed like there were more hecklers in the audience than fans. Nonetheless, the band played its collective heart out, and hopefully it will meet a more deserving reception the next time around.
The Diplomats of Solid Sound, while also playing to a sparse crowd, did not hold back on the energy either. This is a well-seasoned group that has recorded for more than a decade and has played in St. Louis several times before. Members quickly took the stage and set up their instruments including a big, boxy Hammond B-3 organ that lends the throwback sound reminiscent of the MGs. Also present was a baritone sax, guitar, drums and, at center, Cram and Ruestow on vocals.
The leading ladies, known as the Diplomettes, ascended onto the stage as the band played a song from their extensive catalog, "Intercontinental Git." Their voices were consistently clear in each song, including during the spelled-out lyrics of "B-O-O-G-A-L-O-O" and the back-and-forth opening dialogue leading into "Fascination," the first of two encores. The harmonies and showmanship (finger snaps, glamour poses, lovely outfits) the singers brought evoked comparisons with the Supremes and the Ikettes. The surprisingly full sound of the band's select instruments (no bass, only one horn) filled the venue with upbeat and entrancing riffs.
The night in all was a satisfying combination of T Bird and the Breaks' young and edgy interpretation of funk and soul with the more classic style of the Diplomats of Solid Sound. Nothing could have provided a more stark contrast with the chilly, gloomy weather outside than the scorching sounds and vibrant presence that each band offered. I recommend keeping an eye on the radar for the next time either of these bands storm through St. Louis.