Don Bryant | You Make Me Feel | (Fat Possum)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars
The best Southern soul album of 2020 would also have been the best southern soul album of 1970.
Now pushing 80 but sounding half that, Don Bryant’s new disc comes only three years after his previous set of gospel infused R&B, 2017’s roaring Don’t Give Up on Love. Although he had recorded some gospel music in the 2000’s, that 2017 collection was not only a major secular comeback for Bryant as a performer, it also displayed his songwriting talents, most of which had been funneled to his wife, the legendary Ann Peebles and other 60s-70s icons from the Hi label stable such as Al Green, Otis Clay and O.V. Wright. But after Peebles suffered a 2012 stroke, taking her off the road, Bryant returned to writing… and perhaps more importantly started performing again.
There aren’t many like him left.
After William Bell and Lee Fields, the field for genuine 70s singers still sweating out gutsy, chitlin-circuit inspired testifying on a national stage gets precariously thin. That makes this follow-up even more inspirational.
Bryant digs into new songs like the heartbroken “Is It Over,” the slow, sensuous love ballad “I’ll Go Crazy” and a reprise of the yearning, churchy “Don’t Turn Your Back on Me” (wait’ll you hear him hit the final, goose-bump raising falsetto note), a tune he originally recorded in 1965. He also revisits the funky “99 lbs” a hit for Peebles (also given a respectably rocking treatment from Humble Pie) and digs into his own version of “I Die a Little Each Day,” the latter initially given to Otis Clay. There’s even some peppy Motown-styled sounds in “Cracked Up Over You.”
As soon as you push play and hear the horns rocking a tough, grinding riff on “Your Love is To Blame,” with call and response backing singers you’ll think you’ve found some lost Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett B-side. Bryant sings like he’s been holding back for the past 50 years, which isn’t that far from the truth. But all the great songs here wouldn’t mean much without a producer and arranger to make them come alive while staying true to Bryant’s organic roots and vision.
Enter redoubtable multi-instrumentalist Scott Bomar who not only nails that sweet spot but employs drummer Howard Grimes and Charles Hodges on organ (both original Hi session guys), and also co-writes four selections. Bomar provided similar assistance for Bryant’s 2017’s comeback but really finds his groove on these 10 superb tracks. He expertly yet effortlessly balances strings, horns and a taut rhythm section while keeping the focus on Bryant’s pleading vocals. Matt-Ross Spang handles mixing at Sam Phillips Recording Service studio in Memphis bringing extra organic zest to this flavorful concoction.
The closing traditional “Walk All Over God’s Heaven” connects gospel with walking bass and a finger-popping vibe that’ll convince even the biggest sinner to return to church. Don Bryant may have been MIA for nearly five decades but he’s making up for lost time with the stunning, gutsy soul of You Make Me Feel.