As James Brown’s hyper-funky “Ants in My Pants” blasts from a small jam box, Bravo and her bandmates set up their gear at a downtown rehearsal space. Bravo’s auburn locks are wrapped in pigtails and her expressive face is framed by giant hoop earrings. She listens intently to Brown’s every utterance while sucking on a series of cough-suppressant lollipops, to soothe a sore threat that prevented her from joining her bandmates the previous night for their Tuesday night residency at The Mix.
Once the rest of the band has finished setting up and tuning, something remarkable happens. The CD player stops and the Soul Revue kicks into the same song they’ve been absorbing for several minutes. And the pieces are all there, including Bravo’s wordless grunts and exhortations, Eddie Hernandez’s fluid bass runs, Roland De La Cruz’s fretboard-choking guitar chords, and clipped horn bursts from venerable SA sax man Frank Rodarte and trumpet ace Adrian “Perfect Pitch” Ruiz.
The band’s task is to master a set of Brown classics for a slightly belated tribute to the soul legend, who passed away last Christmas. Bravo hatched the concept, partly as a celebration of Brown’s work, and partly as an excuse to turn the band’s normally skeletal lineup into a massive, horn-driven soul machine.
“I’m kind of the crazy person who comes up with all these ideas,” Bravo says with a laugh. “I’m a big daydreamer, a fantasy person.
“I wanted to compensate for the fact that when we found out he died, we really wanted to do some James Brown the following night, but couldn’t,” Bravo says. “So we thought, ‘We’ve got to do this, or if someone else is doing it, let’s be a part of it.’ But no one was doing anything.”
The one constant behind Brown’s half-century of making music was the vaunted tightness and precision of his bands, spurred by his penchant for fining sidemen for every miscue. Given the demands of matching Brown’s incomporable funk grooves, it would be easy to assume that the Soul Revue has found the project daunting. But Hernandez and Bravo are quick to point out that the arrangements have coalesced with surprising ease.
“It’s mostly about his cues,” Bravo says. “We pretty much have it down. I think James Brown shows were mostly improv and a lot of his records were recorded live. It was about him cueing the band.”
“You catch a groove and you learn the part,” Hernandez adds. “A lot of it’s repetitive. And then we keep going until Suzy cues our next change. ‘Are you ready to take it to the bridge?’ Things like that.”
The Soul Revue has been a Tuesday night fixture at The Mix since last May, when Hernandez (guitarist for Sexto Sol) talked to De La Cruz (guitarist for the Mescaleros), about putting together “something bluesy.” De La Cruz suggested they enlist Bravo, a soul-worshiping, former Taco Land regular, to front the band. With a gig pending, they learned 14 songs at their first rehearsal, and never looked back.
The James Brown tribute show will not only feature an expanded band lineup, including Hernandez’s Sexto Sol bandmates, it will take the group up the St. Mary’s strip from The Mix to The Limelight. Adding to the sense of occasion, local artists Shek and Robert Tatum will curate a collection of local art at the gig, and JJ Lopez will set the mood by spinning rare soul 45s.
Rodarte’s guest presence in the James Brown tribute show adds a note of authenticity to the proceedings because his career stretches back almost as far as Brown’s. The East Side native began gigging with the Dell Kings in the late ’50s, and later recorded for United Artists as part of the brass collective Los Blues. While playing with Los Blues in the early ’70s, he even stayed at the same New York hotel with the Godfather of Soul during an extended engagement in the city.
“When he’d finish his gig and we finished our gig, we’d see each other at the deli,” Rodarte says. “He’d come out of the limo with all the brothers, ordering sandwiches and stuff.”
In the ’70s, Los Blues played an astounding 320-week run at Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel, and Rodarte says he ultimately befriended strip regulars such as Redd Foxx and Sammy Davis Jr. He says the band’s success owed a great deal to a sense of discipline derived from Brown’s example.
“We adopted a lot of his rules,” Rodarte says about Brown. “When we were in Vegas, it was no smoking on stage, no drinking, we didn’t want any lulls. These are things you have to do, or you’re going to look like crap and sound like crap.”
Rodarte is known for his loopy sense of humor, and when he learned that the Chicano-dominated Soul Revue would be playing a set of vintage R&B, he dubbed the players “Soul Beans.” Bravo’s own introduction to classic Stax and Motown tracks came from her mother, Mary.
“She talks a lot, like me, and she used to tell me stories about music,” Bravo recalls. “She had her own little soul group. She used to wish she was black and she had a group that was like the Supremes and they called her ‘Soul Lady,’ ’cause they thought she was black.”
Bravo eventually discovered punk rock and fronted garage-rock bands such as Hammered, but she’s been able to return to the music her mother taught her with an Iggy-meets-Aretha appreciation of the way punk and soul share a rhythmic drive, an emotional urgency, and a disdain for artifice.
“At that time, James Brown was as punk rock as you get,” Bravo says. “It’s all about the energy. They call it punk rock now, but that energy is soul. It’s music with passion, sung with a lot of emotion. There are different variations of it, but that’s where the root of it lies.”