Barrence Whitfield takes no prisoners. His live performances are big, physical experiences, no longer quite as raucous as his 1980’s Boston heyday (he nearly “started a riot” during an opening slot for The Damned when he started tossing beer cans into the crowd for the audience’s enjoyment), but still every bit as passionate and powerful. Shows with his crack backing band The Savages are loud, unpredictable, sweaty affairs, Whitfield stalking the stage and dancing like a man possessed. The group recorded four LPs between 1984 and 1990, toured the world, enjoyed cult hero status in England, and became local legends in Massachusetts. The group disbanded in the early 90’s after the release of Let’s Lose It and powerhouse live album Live Emulsified.
Twenty years later, the band roared back to life in 2011 with Savage Kings, an album paying tribute to the legacy of Cincinnati’s King Records. Whitfield was joined by original bandmates Peter Greenberg on guitar and Phil Lenker on bass, with drummer Andy Jody and saxophonist Tom Quatrulli rounding out the quintet. They followed it up with 2013’s Dig Thy Savage Soul, their first album on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, loaded with Whitfield’s soulful howling and punctuated by Greenberg’s spiky riffs. Later that same year, they played a two-night run at MOTR Pub, performing unique setlists of music from the King Records back catalogue. Last fall, they opened for (and nearly upstaged) St. Paul and the Broken Bones at a packed-to-the-rafters Taft Ballroom during Midpoint Music Festival.
Big things are on the horizon for the band--just yesterday, it was announced that they will open for garage-punk legends The Sonics on their spring tour (which makes a stop of its own at The Woodward on April 23rd). Their next LP, recorded here at Ultrasuede Studios, looms on the horizon. But in the meantime, we have another night of burning soul and rock’n’roll. Barrence Whitfield was kind enough to speak with me this week via email:
Nat Tracey-Miller: Did you ever expect such a successful second life for the band?
Barrence Whitfield: Never expected it….but it’s been fantastic to do it a second time with Peter and the band!
NT: Your "full-throttle soul" is a bit of an anomaly on the more alt-country oriented Bloodshot Records. How did that deal come about?
BW: After reforming in 2010 and recording an LP for Spain’s Munster Records (which as also put out as a limited release by Shake It Records), we recorded a new LP and decided we should find a larger label in the USA that could support. Darren Blaze of Shake It Records made an introduction to Bloodshot for us and things moved quickly at that point.
Bloodshot has a deep respect for Roots music – as we do – and although we are move R&B based it is a great fit and we are very happy to be with Bloodshot.
NT: In 2013, you played two nights at MOTR Pub paying tribute to Cincinnati's King Records. What was the preparation like for those shows?
BW: We have a history in Cincinnati and given our respect for music of King Records we were asked to put together the shows by Chris Shadler at [MOTR]. Peter played in bands here in the past and we invited local friends to play King songs which we rehearsed in advance. Tom Heil from the Customs, Vince Gray from the Auburnaires and Lance Kaufman from the Star Devils.
NT: What keeps bringing you back to Cincinnati to record?
BW: We really like UltraSuede Studio and the staff that works there. It also gives us some quality time in town and to see friends while here.
NT: You've written songs about pop culture footnotes such as Willie Meehan and Oscar Levant. What makes them such a rich sources for songwriting inspiration, especially so many years after the peak of their fame?
BW: We like to tell the story of down and out artists who did their best in this God forsaken world!