Photo by Marc Millman
I will start out by saying that The White Stripes are my favorite band that I have ever heard. They are not the best band that I have ever heard—actually pretty far from it—but the combined force of their simple, primal sound along with the fact that they came along at an extremely musically-impressionable time in my life has made them the only real answer when someone asks me to pick one band as my favorite. That being said, I wasn’t sad when they broke up. I trusted that Jack White wouldn’t stop making quality music, and I was mostly just proud of him for ending the project while it was still (in my opinion) fresh, and not after it became stale and no one cared whether they were playing together or not. But there was a hole left in my heart after that day. Sure, I can go back and listen to the six good-to-amazing albums they made, and I can alternatively listen to early and (to a lesser extent) recent Black Keys records, but there really hasn’t been anything that has scratched that particular itch since the Stripes called it quits four years ago. That is, until I saw Tash Neal and Chris St. Hilaire explode onstage at New York’s Bowery Ballroom.
Forgive me for going on that tangent before I even get to the concert at hand, but I feel it was important to explain my feelings toward this band. Let me also say this: The London Souls are not The White Stripes. They are not The Black Keys. And, most importantly, they are not trying to be either one. Yet the comparison is there—with a blues-based guitar/drummer duo in the 21st century, it has to be.
From the moment the first few bars of set opener “Steady” rang through the PA system and Neal settled into that heavy riff that propels the song and warms my heart, I was hooked. The itch was being scratched, and I felt at home with this band.
By the time the third song, “All Tied Down,” came along, I was fully impressed by the power that these two guys were producing. Perched on the balcony that runs along the back of the ballroom, I nevertheless couldn’t have felt more drawn into their performance. It was also at this point, however, that I realized what might be my favorite facet of the Souls’ music: the finesse behind the power.
On top of a heavy blues base, fueled by Neal’s crunchy guitar and St. Hilaire’s unrelenting drums, there are distinct pop melodies and harmonies that give this music a beautiful soul to go along with its beating heart. Songs like “When I’m with You” show an obvious affinity for the pop hook—a fact that, at least on their new album that was released the day of the concert, can at times cause the songs to come off as slightly anemic. But in a live setting, this is far from true—the blood is pumping all night long. Basically, the album is good; the live show is great. Case in point: the frenetic, Hendrix-esque feedback work Neal busted out to end that same “pop” song when it came up halfway through the set.
As much as I couldn’t help but be reminded of The White Stripes or The Black Keys when I was watching these guys onstage, it is just as easy to recognize the ways in which the band differs from them. First off, St. Hilaire is a better musician that those drummers (no offense to Patrick Carney, and only a little offense to Meg White), but that’s not really the point. The real difference is that The London Souls are not the work of one man. They are a true collaborative force.
Yes, Neal is the de facto frontman, because he is the lead singer and guitarist and that means that the focus of the audience is probably mostly on him. And without a bassist—which has not always been the case for this band—his guitar is doing a lot of heavy lifting to keep the energy up. But St. Hilaire is more than a supporting act—he is wholly immersed in the music in a way that makes the duo seem inseparable, something those other bands have never approached. Honestly, St. Hilaire could be a lead singer, if only he were standing up. He showed that in his ability to support Neal’s vocals—imitating or contrasting them in the band’s many call-and-response volleys—while still keeping impeccable (and interesting) time, and he even took over lead duties during a cover of David Bowie’s “It Ain’t Easy.”
Not to take anything away from Neal, who truly has a voice for live music. It has a raw energy to it that he can dial up or down at will, perfectly matching whatever texture and feel called for by the song at hand. When the band finally brought things down a bit for the country-twinge of “Hercules,” the soft crooner vocals came out, barely audible compared to the blues belting that filled the rest of the night. But of course, the guys couldn’t help but turn even that song into a roaring shuffle of a jam by the end of it.
This was not an evening to let things get too soft for too long. While the new album has its share of pallet-cleansing, more subdued tracks, most of those were left at home in favor of a continuous energetic wave that didn’t disappoint. At the end of the night—after the encore-opening run of “Magic Bus” into “Get Back”—the Souls rounded out an altogether satisfying performance with a raucous-bordering-on-grungy, aptly-titled “I Think I Like It.” And I really do.