Barrence Whitfield and the Savages resume soul rampage

Complacency is no match for the human hurricane known as Barrence Whitfield. His recent reunion with the Savages came after decades apart, but time melts away as soon as band co-founders Peter Greenberg, Phil Lenker and Whitfield slam into the first chord each night in front of their typically jacked-up fans.

"The show really hasn't changed that much – there is sweat from head to toe," Whitfield says in an interview on a rare day off from touring. "It's like going through saunas and rain showers, and after our hour and 45 minutes, I'm in a shirt that needs to be washed three times."

The band's first show at Babson College outside Boston in the early '80s set the tone. "The intensity, it was there from the beginning," the singer says. "I'd get on stage and the music and the crowd reaction hit you, and I'm feeding off that. One night I was rolling on the stage, then I jumped onto a chandelier in the middle of the room and the crowd caught me before I fell to the floor and killed myself. Pretty soon people are following us around on tour, wanting that fix. One night I jumped off stage and I acted like I had an epileptic fit, wiggling on the floor. I opened my eyes and looked to my side, and there are five guys in the audience doing the same thing, rolling around like crazy people."

The band's latest album, "Dig They Savage Soul," on Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, is a blowtorch combo of garage rock and soul – but it's just a prelude to what happens when the quintet performs live.

"We're living at a time when people go to shows and they don't see the kind of stuff we do anymore," the singer says. "People pay their money and they may sing and clap, but no one is starting a riot, getting people riled up. People are looking at their cellphones now. If they use 'em at our shows, they're texting their friends saying, 'You need to get your butt over here right now.' "

Whitfield arrived in Boston in the late '70s to attend Boston University after growing up in New Jersey. Music was a constant companion at home, with heavy doses of James Brown, Temptations and Wilson Pickett, and "on Sunday morning, no one touched the radio between 8 and noon because that's when the gospel music came on as I was getting myself ready for church, right across the street from my house." The budding singer later became infatuated with rock, particularly Led Zeppelin and King Crimson. "I'd be in a battle of the bands show and we would open with (Zeppelin's) 'Immigrant Song.' I'd hit those high notes and jaws would hit the floor because here was this black guy sounding like Robert Plant."

In Boston, that voice caught the attention of Greenberg, a fixture on the scene with his garage bands DMZ and Lyres. "Peter wanted me to scream and shout like Little Richard and Esquerita (Little Richard influence Eskew Reader), molded into the garage rock, where he was coming from, plus rockabilly," Whitfield says. "No one was really doing that at the time, and they still aren't."

The band burned through hundreds of shows and released two studio albums prized by roots-music aficionados, and won rave reviews from fans such as Elvis Costello and Plant. Then the Savages splintered. Whitfield soldiered on for a few more records with new lineups and then went solo, his music becoming far more popular in Europe than it was in America.

All was quiet on the Savages front until 2010, when a respected U.K. label, Ace Records, reissued the band's self-titled 1984 debut album. "That's how me and Peter got to talking again," Whitfield says. "He had moved to Taos (New Mexico) and was back into music. I offered to do some vocals for him anytime, and two weeks later he calls me back: 'Are you ready to go? I've booked some dates.' "

They marked their reunion with an album, "Savage Kings," released in 2011 on a Spanish label. The self-financed follow-up, "Dig Thy Savage Soul," is even better, as it expands Greenberg's songwriting collaboration with lyricist Mike Mooney. Whereas once the band relied on covers to carry its albums, originals such as "Oscar Levant," about the darkly witty entertainer, and the sinister "Hangman's Token" show a different and – dare I say – more cerebral side to the Savages.

"We're finding new genres to expand," Whitfield says, "without losing the old energy and craziness."

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 a.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).

Twitter @chitribent

When: 9 p.m. Friday

Where: Mayne Stage, 1328 Morse Ave.

Tickets: $18;





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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