Live Concert Photography: Lee Fields and the Expressions with Paul and the Tall Trees and Lady Wray at Irving Plaza 1/7/16
Now, if you’ve been frequenting this site over the past few years, you’ve come across a handful of posts featuring soul singer Lee Fields. Fields has had a lengthy music career, which he can trace back to his first recorded efforts released in 1969 — and he’s toured with a number of nationally and internationally known acts including Kool and the Gang, O.V. Wright, Hip Huggers, and others; however, until recently Fields has toiled around in a bit of obscurity with the exception of crate diggers, seeking deep, funky grooves from the late 60s and 70s and obsessively completist soul music fans and record collectors. Luckily for Fields and several others, the classic soul sound has seen a remarkable resurgence over the better part of the past two decades with some sadly forgotten talents — in particular, the late and utterly fantastic Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, the late, great Chuck Brown and others — achieving a measure of attention and fame that had eluded them. And there have been an increasing number of contemporary soul acts and labels both nationally and internationally releasing new, original material, often with new takes on a familiar and beloved sound.
With the release of 2009’s My World, 2012’s Faithful Man and 2014’s Emma Jean through Truth and Soul Records, Fields along with his new backing band The Expression won the attention of the blogosphere and new fans — all while increasingly sound and lyrics in new directions; in fact, Emma Jean featured a gorgeous soulful cover of Leon Russell’s “Out In The Woods,” which interestingly enough managed to evoke Fields’ own experience of arriving in New York as a 17 year old with only $20 in pocket and a desire to make a name for himself. Fields’ fourth effort with The Expressions Special Night mostly focuses on the intricacies of romantic relationships — although with album single “Make The World.” a stomping, early 70s James Brown-indebted bit of funk soul, about the need for people to unite and get things right. Hell, that may be a song that’s a needed anthem of the moment, and what I hope will be a burgeoning resistance to a wannabe, idiot tyrant. But at the heart of the matter is this: earlier this month Fields and his Expressions headlined a show at Irving Plaza with fellow soul acts Lady Wray and Paul and the Tall Trees.
Portsmouth, VA-born singer/songwriter Nicole Wray has had a lengthy, more than 20 year musical career consisting of brushes with massive success and a series of soul-crushing lows. When Wray was a teenager, attending high school and working part time at a telemarketing firm, Missy Elliot paid a visit to Wray and her family’s home, based purely on the rumored strength and quality of her voice. And as the story goes. Elliot was so impressed by the Portsmouth, VA-based teenager, that Elliot offered her a record deal — and Wray left town that same night. By 1998 Wray had a gold-selling, hit single off her debut album Make It Hot and was a part of a collection of artists that dominated the charts and airwaves, and it included the aforementioned Elliot, Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Playa, Timbaland and Magoo. Wray was close to stardom but with only a follow up single “I’m Lookin‘” and a stalled sophomore full-length effort, Wray had found her time with Elliot and company had run its course, leaving the artist in a situation in which she didn’t know what to do and felt a though she didn’t have much purpose.
In 2004, Wray was signed by Damon Dash‘s Roc-A-Fella Records, who released “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” a single that received quite a bit of airplay nationally; however, the label collapsed just as she was set to release her long-awaited sophomore effort, and her long-awaited sophomore effort was shelved as a result. Sadly around the time, Wray experienced a series of personal and familial issues — her father and his drug addiction had added additional strain to her parents’ marriage, several family members had run-ins with the law and several friends tragically died. Unsurprisingly, these experiences deeply influenced the Portsmouth, VA-born Wray, and she found herself taking greater control of her career and life.
Maintaining a connection with Damon Dash, the Portsmouth, VA-born singer/songwriter picked up a few notable guest spots including an appearance on The Black Keys‘ 2009 Blackroc project and on the band’s Grammy-winning effort, Brothers. She then followed that up in 2013 with Lady Wray, a project in which Wray collaborated with London-based vocalist Terri Walker, along with the members of the backing bands of Aloe Blacc and Lee Fields — and the group released their critically applauded debut effort Lady through Truth and Soul Records. Interestingly, as Lady Wray started to receive attention, Walker left the project to pursue her own projects. Instead of walking away in frustration, Wray decided to continue Lady Wray by herself, viewing it as an opportunity to show her growth as a songwriter and her vocal chops.
With 2016’s Queen Alone, Wray is reunited with the members of her original backing band along with production from Big Crown Records‘ Leon Michels and Daptone Records Tom Brenneck. And as Wray explained in press notes, the album is a “reflection of my soul. It’s who I am today.” The result is material that is directly influenced by the feelings, thoughts and experiences of the singer/songwriter’s life, including reeling over the lost of a cherished, long-term relationships and so on while sonically nodding at What’s the 411 and My Life-era Mary J. Blige and classic soul.
Fronted by its creative mastermind, the Staten Island-based singer/songwriter Paul Schalda, indie rock/indie soul act Paul and The Tall Trees have a sound that owes a debt to doo-wop, The Band and Neil Young and Crazy Horse paired with earnest songwriting. With the release of singles like “Once In A While” and “Little Bit of Sunshine” Schalda has started to receive quite a bit of national attention, which has resulted in him and his band opening for the great Charles Bradley and recently for Lee Fields and The Expressions at Irving Plaza. Sadly, I somehow lost the photos from that set, and if I’m able to find them, I may have to add them later on. Sigh.