Suppose you have built your career around writing songs for a gifted singer and playing in that artist’s band. What do you do when that vocalist suddenly disappears?
Guitarist Tommy Brenneck and drummer Homer Steinweiss confronted this question not once but twice in the 11 months between late 2016 and the following fall. They were best known for contributing songwriting and playing to two of this century’s greatest soul singers: Daptone Records’ Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. When Jones died of cancer in 2016 and Bradley of the same the next year, Brenneck and Steinweiss were devastated. But they have rebounded this year with impressive albums from their current projects: Brenneck’s Budos Band and Steinweiss’s Holy Hive.
Jones had beaten cancer once, but she couldn’t beat it twice. As Barbara Kopple’s powerful documentary movie, Miss Sharon Jones, tells it, Jones recovered from a long struggle with chemotherapy to launch a triumphant comeback tour in 2014. But the cancer came back, and as she watched the election results in 2016, she suffered a small stroke. She joked that Trump had done it to her, but the next day a bigger stroke left her unable to talk. The Dap-Kings assembled at her hospital in Cooperstown, New York, and held vigil till she died on November 18, 2016.
“Those tours after her first chemo treatment were the best shows we’d ever done,” Steinweiss remembers. “There was just an extra sense of accomplishment that Sharon had defeated this thing. She talked about what she went through in the shows, that was pretty powerful stuff, and it took the shows to another level.
“Those last weeks after the stroke were really, really intense. She wasn’t really aware of where she was, but she started humming. We thought she was groaning, so we leaned closer and realized she was singing. Some of the words were jumbled, but she would sing for hours. It was pretty powerful. I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything like that again.”
In August of 2016, Bradley too was diagnosed with cancer, finally succumbing on September 23, 2017. Once again, band members gathered at a bedside to bid their singer goodbye.
“Those were two giant things,” Brenneck admits. “The record that I recorded right after Charles’s death I never put out. It was a mess because I was a mess. I was at the bottom of the barrel at the time.”
Brenneck recovered by throwing himself into his longtime group, the Budos Band. They released their album V last year and Long in the Tooth this fall. It was a surprising burst of productivity for an act that released only one album between 2008 and 2018. Meanwhile, Steinweiss dived into numerous projects, such as producing a track on Lianne La Havas, the new album by the high-profile British singer. But his current priority is his trio Holy Hive, which has just released the album Float Back to You.
On the surface, these are very different projects from the Jones and Bradley records that made the reputations of Brenneck and Steinweiss, both now 38. The Budos Band is a purely instrumental ensemble that ranges widely from Ethiopian music to hard-rock, while Holy Hive has a folkie singer-songwriter named Paul Spring out front. And yet these new albums bear an unmistakable debt to Jones and Bradley. You can hear it in the funk’n’soul grooves, in the chorus hooks and in the gospel-soul passion of the performances.
“I spent my 20s touring with Sharon, forming the Budos Band and working on Charles’ first album,” Brenneck explains. “How could that not shape everything I’m doing now? The first time I played a song for Charles and he sang it back to me, I fell on the floor because it sounded so powerful. Now I want everything I do to have that power.”
“The whole Holy Hive thing started to gel when I tried to blend that indie-folk style to that traditional soul and funk from the ‘60s,” adds Steinweiss. “Paul had his songs, and those R&B grooves are the tools that I can bring. On one level, it’s all just words, chords, beats and melody. Neil Young may not sound like James Brown, but they’re both singing the same thing over a groove again and again. This was a chance to take what I liked about Daptone and what I liked about indie-rock and see how they might fit.”
Brenneck and Steinweiss are both products of an Afrobeat/R&B revival that flourished in New York in the first years of this century. The mostly instrumental Afrobeat band, Antibalas, created a buzz in the city’s clubs with its own spin on Fela Kuti’s Nigerian funk. Antibalas’s guitarist/songwriter/producer Gabe Roth (aka Bosco Mann) left to form his own instrumental group, the Dap-Kings, and his own record label, Daptone, with an emphasis on classic American R&B. A third band, the Mighty Imperials, was an instrumental funk quartet in the style of the Meters.
It was hearing these bands that convince Brenneck to leave his Staten Island classic-rock band Moonjam and join the local R&B dance band Schlitz 36, which became the Fast Breaking Classics, which morphed into Los Barbudos (Spanish for “The Bearded Ones”). They wanted to fuse African music and R&B as Antibalas had but in a different way. They fell in love with an anthology of East African music called Ethiopique, and that influence gave them their own signature sound.
“Ethiopian music is influenced by James Brown,” Brenneck notes, “but it also has these Eastern touches and weird harmonies. We tried to copy it, but we missed the mark and made up something that was our own—just like the Rolling Stones tried to play American R&B, missed the mark and created British rock’n’roll.”
When someone pointed out that Los Barbudos was the name of Fidel Castro’s baseball team, a connection that offended some people, the group renamed itself the Budos Band. The group approached Daptone, but Roth said the label didn’t need another instrumental band. But it did need a band to back up its new singer, Charles Bradley, and that worked out for everyone. Soon Daptone decided to release the Budos Band’s albums as well.
Meanwhile, the Mighty Imperials’ drummer, Steinweiss, became the drummer for the Dap-Kings. And with Brenneck he co-founded the Menahan Street Band, another instrumental band that also worked with Bradley. As first Jones and then Bradley took off, there was more than enough work for everyone—both in the studio and on the road.
“Sharon was the queen of Daptone and the modern soul movement,” Brenneck recalls, “but she really wasn’t a songwriter. Gabe wrote most of her songs, but Homer and I started writing songs and showing them to Gabe and Sharon. The experience of having an idea, turning it into a song, showing it to Sharon or Charles, and hearing them sing it back to you, is the most amazing feeling in the world. If I could, I would sit down at the piano and write songs all day.”
Brenneck and Steinweiss not only backed soul singer Jones on her breakthrough albums: 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights and 2010’s I Learned the Hard Way, but they also wrote or co-wrote three songs for each album. And the two men wrote or co-wrote all the songs on Bradley’s breakthrough album, 2013’s Victim of Love and nine of the 11 songs on the 2016 follow-up, Changes.
“When I wrote with Sharon,” Steinweiss adds, “I’d bring in a sketch with some lyric ideas and some chordal movement, but I always left some room for things to come together. With Charles, Tommy and I would bring in instrumentals and see if Charles could sing something on top of that. Charles’s songs are very personal, very autobiographical, Charles would tell these stories and we would turn them into lyrics, so each time Charles sang it, he could tap into that personal experience.”
“If you give me a funk beat and a tape recorder,” Bradley told me in 2014, “and if I like the beat, my words will come out raw. Tom is really good at that; he asks me a lot of questions, and I answer his questions. My spirit opens up and the best stuff comes out of me; you have to tape it right then and there because that’s when it comes out natural. When I have the blues and I have things bothering me deeply, that’s the best time for me to write a song.”
After Jones and Bradley died, Steinweiss decided it was time to carry out his long-delayed plan to get off the road and work more on songwriting and producing. One of his production projects was Minnesota singer Paul Spring, the boyfriend of the cousin of Steinweiss’s Minnesota girlfriend. The Brooklyn drummer had always liked acts like the Shins and Elliot Smith, even when he was neck-deep in the Daptone world. He heard a similar quality in Spring’s songs.
He started taking it more seriously when he and Spring began writing new songs together, trying to marry the Elliot Smith sound to the Daptone sound. The result was a folk-soul sound with high-tenor vocals and spare arrangements that remind this writer of the Stylistics, Minnie Riperton and Babyface.
“I’m a big fan of the Holy Hive record,” says Brenneck. “Homer’s always been a big folk-music fan, and it’s cool that he now has this outlet. It’s definitely interesting for someone like Homer and myself, after decades of making songs for soul projects, to stretch out. It was cool when the Budos Band made Burnt Offering, a rocked-out version of our sound, and it was cool to go back to the original sound on this new record.”
The first two Budos Band albums had a strong Ethiopian flavor, but the group’s third release, Burnt Offering, allowed them to let their hard-rock backgrounds leak into the music. The new album, Long in the Tooth, combines a little bit of everything they love—African music, American R&B, surf music, psychedelia, Ennio Morricone and lots of reverb—into the kind of eclectic soundtrack music you might hear underneath a Quentin Tarantino movie. Tarantino hasn’t called yet, but the music is ready for him when he does.
“When you come up with somebody on the road,” Steinweiss says, “you inevitably grow closer together musically. Tommy’s just a great guitar player and pianist; he’s always fun to work with. So when he and I get in the studio, there’s a language we share that’s unique. You don’t have that with someone you just met.”
If you dig The Budos Band, consider a purchase of the new album.