Powerhouse Soul Crew St. Paul and The Broken Bones Makes Ryman Headlining Debut With Help From William Tyler
Powerhouse soul crew makes Ryman headlining debut with help from William Tyler
In recent months, whenever The Spin has stopped to take stock of everything that’s going on, we’ve often found ourselves asking “Is nothing sacred?” To which the universe seems to repeatedly reply, “Nope.” But our visit Thursday to the Mother Church of Country Music for the opening of a two-night stand by Alabama gospel-soul phenoms St. Paul and the Broken Bones, supported by local guitar hero William Tyler (performing with a full band), was a potent reminder of just how deeply music can move people.
Tyler & Co. (consisting of Margo Price sideman Luke Schneider on pedal steel, Bully’s Reece Lazarus on bass and Tyler’s former Silver Jews band mate Brian Kotzur on drums) started their set of instrumental cosmic country-rock slowly and reverently, luxuriating in the hallowed space. The whispers and creaks of latecomers looking for their seats felt like an oddly appropriate accompaniment. Tempos and intensity gradually ramped up on the way to the country-fried proto-disco-number-with-a-side-of-krautrock number “I’ll Live Forever If It Kills Me.” Here, Tyler took a pause to introduce the band and offer thanks for the (long overdue) opportunity to play the Ryman, which he called “a surreal dream come true.” Grinning ear to ear, he also deadpanned “I don’t know what Roy Acuff would think about our set.”
The majestic swell of “Gone Clear,” which threads together concepts from Appalachian, Indian and minimalist music and featured Tyler playing one-handed while Kotzur doubled on drums and glockenspiel, was a special highlight. Same goes for their closing number, a thick slab of country-funk that morphed into a wild electric jig, titled “Area Code 601” — an homage to both the band Area Code 615 and the area code in southern Mississippi, where Tyler’s family is from.
As the house lights dimmed after intermission, an ominous R&B beat rang out from the speakers, a sound you’d expect to herald the arrival of someone powerful. It wasn’t just stage dressing. As the seven-piece band took their places on various risers nestled between the lighting gear, frontman “Saint” Paul Janeway emerged from a cloud of fog into a golden spotlight, clad in a flowing cape and sequined loafers, trailed by a hunched-over tech who scrambled to make sure the mic cable was out of the way. Approaching his golden mic on its golden stand, he gave the crowd a good sizing up. Satisfied with his read of us, he lifted his arms to us like a conductor readying his musicians, and began to wail his way through “Crumbling Light Posts Pt. 1,” the introduction to the band’s 2016 album Sea of Noise. “It’s time to lose yourself!” he shouted. “It’s time to set yourself free!”
The show has a higher production value, but little else has changed from when we saw Janeway & Co. wreck a crowd of 150 or so at The Basement or 400 at Mercy Lounge a few years back. We were not at all surprised when they got a standing ovation from this audience of about 2,300 three songs into their set.
Guitarist Browan Lollar’s bluesy licks, biting and fluid, compliment Janeway’s powerhouse vocals in a way that distinguishes the glove-tight group from fellow students of classic Southern soul. And as always, Janeway channeled his seemingly boundless energy into sweat-drenched revivalist antics. During “Broken Bones and Pocket Change,” a break-up ballad that’s been a repertoire staple for about as long as the Bones have been a band, he rolled himself up in the carpet that marked center stage while he made his impassioned pleas.
And there were humanizing anecdotes. On this momentous occasion of the band’s debut as headliners at the Ryman (after previous appearances during AmericanaFest and opening for Jason Isbell), Janeway’s grandfather came up from Lebanon to see the show. And he brought his gun, for which Janeway offered an apology to the security staff.
The sustained enthusiastic response from the crowd, whose shouts of joy rivaled the band’s volume throughout the show, drove home the point that music — especially soul music, timeless in its ability to elevate raw emotion into profound artistic expression — fulfills important human needs. It can help re-orient you when you feel like it’s all going wrong. It can remind you that you’re not alone when you feel adrift. And The Spin certainly felt better for being there.