White soul bands get a bad rap, and not just because a lot of them deliver bad rap. What could be less necessary than a band doing stiff, precise renditions of Stax classics? And one can be excused for thinking that any Caucasian who attempts a familiar Wilson Pickett song should be trucked off to the toughest corner of Memphis and stripped naked . . .
EXCEPTIONAL: The Sinners are less by-the-book revivalists than a rock-and roll-band playing soul nuggets.
So why are the World’s Greatest Sinners an exception? For one thing, they’re music nuts: the covers they do are the kind of deep-catalogue obscurities that only a crazed collector would know and love. For another, they have a dynamic and charismatic singer in Jordan Valentine. Most of all, they sound like a rock-and-roll band playing soul nuggets — more like the Who or the Kinks in their Mod era than a tribute band.
“I didn’t want to sound like a ‘Mustang Sally’ band at Dick’s fuckin’ Last Resort,” is how guitarist Tony Savarino puts it when we meet at the Druid in Inman Square. Like most of the members, Savarino has a long résumé; his includes the Montgomerys, Caged Heat, the Rudds, and even a stint with Dale Bozzio. Adds the newest member, singer Georgia Young, “I think there’s a difference between a cover band and bands who carry on a tradition.”
Valentine, the band’s prime mover and frontwoman, says she had a dream set of favorite singles before she even had a band. Her poison of choice is “Northern soul,” so named for the DJs in Northern England who unearthed non-hit US soul singles. “I love that those records are so imperfect. You can hear the mistakes. And the record-geek aspect is a lot of fun. I’ve been carrying this idea around since 1996, when I was living in Pittsburgh. I had a mix CD of 22 soul songs that I’ve been trying to do ever since.”
Many of those tunes are on the Sinners’ self-released debut, Ten Before Eight. Of the 11 tracks, only two are close to well-known: “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination,” a ’70s hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips, and “Testify,” George Clinton’s first single with the Parliaments, here stretched to six minutes. The funkified version of Elmore James’s “Dust My Broom” is too far from the original to qualify. The rest — including Jamo Thomas’s great “I Spy for the FBI,” which a British DJ turned Valentine onto — are buried treasures, all done up sweaty and live-sounding. Valentine’s vocals are suitably brassy but also warm and emotive, a counterpart to the glamorous image she projects on stage.
“She’s a sexy, sinning soul mama carrying this wicked sexual energy,” Savarino offers. “I mean, people freak out when they see Jordan. The women just love her.” Valentine mentions her love for ’60s-style glamor, something that’s evident in the many gig posters she’s done for local bands, with their early-Playboy pin-up æsthetic. “I hate the word retro, but that’s the era where my head is.” The same qualities were found in her first vocal role model, pre-comeback Tina Turner. “I took voice lessons as a kid, and I always had a rough, non-technically perfect voice. The first time I heard early Tina Turner, I knew that a voice didn’t have to sound clean and clear to be really good.”