JOVM’s William Ruben Helms’ previews East Star All-Stars set this week at Brooklyn Bowl.
Born Neal Francis O’Hara, the Livingston, NJ-born, Chicago-based singer/songwriter and pianist known as Neal Francis can trace the origins of his sound and approach to his childhood: he was obsessed with boogie woogie piano and his father gifted him a dusty Dr. John album. O’Hara quickly became a piano prodigy, touring Europe with Muddy Waters‘ son and with other prominent bluesmen across the States when he was just 18.
In 2012, Neal Francis joined the popular instrumental funk band The Heard. With the Livingston-born, Chicago-based singer/songwriter and pianist at the creative helm, The Heard quickly became a national touring act, making stops at New Orleans Jazz Fest and Bear Creek, and touring with The New Mastersounds and The Revivalists. As The Heard’s profile rose, Francis sunk deeply into addiction. By 2015, he had been fired from his band, evicted from his apartment and was inching perilously close to his own destruction. “When you get close to death like that you can feel it,” Francis recalls. An alcohol-induced seizure that year led to a broken femur, dislocated arm, and, finally, the realization that he needed to get clean. Although he identifies as not being religious, Francis took a music-ministry job at St. Peter’s UCC in 2017 at the suggestion of a friend.
Francis’ solo debut, 2019’s Changes was released to critical acclaim with the album landing on Best-of-the-Year lists of KCRW, KEXP and The Current while BBC Radio 6hailed him as “the reincarnation of Allen Toussaint.” Adding to a breakthrough year, Francis toured with Lee Fields and The Expressions and JOVM mainstays The Black Pumas. He shared a stage with members of the legendary The Meters at New Orleans Jazz Fest. And he did a live session on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic.
Despite having breakthrough success with his career, Francis broke up with his longtime girlfriend while on tour to support Changes. When the tour ended, he trend to Chicago and found himself with no place to stay. So, he ended to St. Peter’s and asked if he could move into the parsonage. “I thought I’d only stay a few months but it turned into over a year, and I knew I had to do something to take advantage of this miraculous gift of a situation,” he says.
Francis began writing new material, a series of songs that’s both strangely enchanted and painfully self-aware, inspired by Greek myths, frenzied dreams and late night drives and a possibly haunted church. (More on that in a bit.) The end result is the Chicago-based artist’s highly-anticipated sophomore album In Plain Sight, an album that derives its title from the title of a song that wound up getting cut from the album. “It’s a song about my breakup and the circumstances that led to me living in the church, where I’m owning up to all my problems within my relationships and my sobriety,” says Francis, whose first full-length chronicles his struggles with addiction. “It felt like the right title for this record, since so much of it is about coming to the understanding that I continue to suffer because of those problems. It’s about acknowledging that and putting it out in the open in order to mitigate the suffering and try to work on it, instead of trying to hide everything.”
Continuing his ongoing collaboration with Changes producer Sergio Rios, a guitarist and engineer, who has worked with CeeLo Green and Alicia Keys, the album spotlights Francis’ reminded yet free-spirited piano playing. “From a very early age, I was playing late into the night in a very stream-of-consciousness kind of way,” he says, naming everything from ragtime to gospel soul to The Who among his formative influences.
Recorded entirely on tape with his backing band, Kellen Boersma (guitar), Mike Starr (bass) and Collin O’Brien (drums), In Plain Sight is also fueled by Francis’ restless experimentation with a stash of analog synths lent by his friends during his early days living at the church “My sleep schedule flipped and I’d stay up all night working on songs in this very feverish way,” he says. “I just needed so badly to get completely lost in something.”
By the end of his surreal and sometimes eerie experience of living at the church—“I’m convinced that the stairway leading to the choir loft where I used to practice is haunted,” he says—Francis had found his musicality undeniably elevated. “Because I was forced into this almost monastic existence and was alone so much of the time, I could play as often and as long as I wanted,” he says. “I ended up becoming such a better pianist, a better writer, a better reader of music.” Dedicated to a woman named Lil (the de facto leader of the St. Peter’s congregation), In Plain Sight ultimately reveals the possibility of redemption and transformation even as your world falls apart.
In Plain Sight‘s first single is the uplifting and shuffling boogie woogie “Can’t Stop the Rain.” Centered around a Southern rock arrangement reminiscent of Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Sweet Home Alabama,” complete with a soaring gospel-tinged chorus, Francis’ latest single also prominently features a smoldering slide guitar solo from Derek Trucks.Underlying the whole affair is Francis’ unerring knack for a crafting an infectious hook paired with lived-in, world weary yet hopeful lyrics expressing a profound yet simple sentiment — gratitude. “I wrote that with my buddy David Shaw, who came up with the refrain and this idea that even though life’s going to throw all this shit at you, there’s still so many things to be grateful for,” Francis says.
Recently Francis and his backing band stopped at Shirk Studios for a loose and jammy version of “Can’t Stop the Rain,” which I think is a good taste of what to expect from Francis and his band, when they start hitting club across the country. Francis is currently on a massive and extensive Stateside tour that included dates opening for The Black Pumas and stops at Americana Fest, Shaky Knees, and Outside Lands, as well as several other stops on the national festival circuit. The tour also includes two NYC area dates: a sold-out Mercury Lounge show on September 20, 2021 and a Brooklyn Bowl show on 9/22/21. You can check out the rest of the tour dates below. Tickets and other information is available at nealfrancis.com.
In Plain Sight is slated for a November 5, 2021 release through ATO Records.
Today is the fifth day of Black History Month. And if you’ve been frequenting this site over the past few days of this month, you’d see that I’ve been featuring Black artists across a wide and eclectic array of genres and styles that I think can guide you towards understanding the Black experience.
Through the month — and throughout the year, I hope that you’ll come to understand and appreciate the following:
Black culture is American culture
Black music is American music.
Black history is American history.
America’s greatest and beloved contributions to the world are Black music styles — the blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop.
Black art matters.
You can’t love black art and black artists without loving black people.
Black lives matter — all of them, all of the time.
When Living Colour exploded into the scene with “Cult of Personality,” it was a mind-blowing revelation. I loved Metallica, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Tears for Fears and stuff like that as much as I loved Kid ‘N’ Play, Heavy D, Michael Jackson, Motown and everything else. As a boy, I knew I couldn’t be Metallica, Tears for Fears or any other white act — for obvious reasons. But with Living Colour’s original lineup, which featured brothers, who grew up and lived in the area, induing a guy from my dad’s old neighborhood — Hollis! — I could see myself in them. I could be those brothers, playing like that, if I wanted to. Much like Run DMC and LL Cool J, the members of Living Colour were gods in my eyes.
In my book, Living Colour has long been criminally underrated. Corey Glover has one of the greatest voices in rock. Vernon Reid is a fucking beast. And no sounded like them. They should have been like Soundgarden. But such is life.
True story, I briefly met Vernon Reid and Corey Glover after a show at Brooklyn Bowl. They were kind, generous and hilarious. But I never got to thank them for what they meant for me. So thank you, brothers. Thank you.
Over the past year or so, I’ve spilled a ton of virtual ink covering the Grammy Award-nominated Austin, TX-based soul act and JOVM mainstays, Black Pumas over the past year. Led by Grammy Award-winning producer, songwriter, guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada and San Fernando Valley-born singer/songwriter and guitarist Eric Burton, the acclaimed act can trace their origins back to 2017.
Burton, who grew up singing in church and in musical theater, started busking at the Santa Monica pier, where he brought in a few hundred dollars a day while developing the stage presence, that would later win attention both nationally and internationally. He then traveled across the Western US, eventually relocating to Austin, where he set up a busking spot on 6th Street and Congress, a prime location in the city’s busy downtown neighborhood for maximum exposure.
Meanwhile Quesada was looking to collaborate with someone new. He had been reaching out to friends in Los Angeles and London but nothing seemed to fit. Serendipitously, a mutual friend recommended Burton to Quesada, with that friend telling Quesada that Bruton was the best vocalist he had ever heard. As the story goes, Quesada had reached out to Burton, but it took the San Fernando Valley-born, Austin-based singer/songwriter a while to respond. “My friends were like ‘Dude, you’re a mad man, you need to hit that guy back!’” Burton recalls. When Burton did call Quesada, he sang to him over the phone. “I loved his energy, his vibe, and I knew it would be incredible on record,” Quesada says. “From the moment I heard him on the phone, I was all about it.”
Last year, the duo along with a talented cast of collaborators released their breakthrough full-length debut. And since the self-titled debut’s release, the album has sold 155,000+ album equivalents worldwide, with smash hit “Colors” hitting #1 on Adult Album Alternative (AAA) radio and has been streamed over 60 million times. They also maintained a relentless tour schedule across North America that brought their uplifting and powerful live show to New York three times: The Knitting Factory, last May; Mercury Lounge, last July; and Brooklyn Bowl last September. Additionally, the band began to make stops across the nationally televised, talk show circuit, playing Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Ellen Show and others.
And adding to a breakthrough year, Black Pumas earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist along with fellow JOVM mainstay Yola — with both acts anti-climatically losing out to Billie Eilish.
This year has seen the release of a deluxe version of their breakthrough self-titled album — and it features new artwork, previously unpublished in-studio and live performance photographs and a bonus 7 inch featuring three previously unreleased originals, live in-studio versions of popular album singles “Colors,” “October 33,” and “Confines;” a live version of “Know You Better,” recorded at C-Boys Heart & Soul, the Austin club, where the band first made a name for themselves, as well as attention-grabbing covers of The Beatles‘ “Eleanor Rigby,” (a staple of their live shows), Death’s “Politicians in My Eyes,” Bobby “Blue” Bland‘s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” and Tracy Chapman‘s “Fast Car,” which they premiered on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Continuing upon an enviable run of success, Black Pumas recently received three nominations for the 2021 Grammys — Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best American Roots Performance for “Colors.” And they’ve capped off the year with an NPR Tiny Desk (At Home) session that featured album singles “Fire,” “Oct 33,” and “Colors,” as well as set opener “Red Rover.” And although they’re performing in an empty studio — it’s a pandemic after all — the NPR set is fueled by the same passionate and soulful spirit of their live sets.
During the past four years or so, I’ve managed to spill copious amounts of virtual ink covering acclaimed Bristol, UK-based soul singer/songwriter and JOVM mainstay Hannah Williams.
With “Work It Out,” off 2012’s full-length debut Hill of Feathers, Williams and her first backing band The Tastemakers, emerged into national and international soul circles with the track receiving attention across the blogosphere and airplay on radio stations across the States, Australia and the European Union. At one point “Work It Out” was one of the most downloaded songs in Greece with the video amassing over 1.5 million streams on YouTube.
Building upon a growing profile, Williams played sets across the European festival circuit, including stops at Shambala Festival, Valley Fest, Wilderness Festival, Cambridge Jazz Festival and Larmer Tree Festival, as well as some of Europe’s most renowned clubs, including Hamburg, Germany‘s Mojo; Manchester, UK’s Band on the Wall; and Camden, UK‘s Jazz Cafe with the likes of JOVM mainstays Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, and Charles Bradley, as well as Cat Power.
Williams’ 2016 Michael Cotto-produced sophomore album Late Nights and Heartbreak was the first recorded output with her current backing band, the Bristol-based soul outfit, The Affirmations — currently, James Graham (organ, piano and Wurlitzer), Adam Holgate (guitar), Adam Newton (bass), Jai Widdowson-Jones (drums), Nicholas Malcolm (trumper), Liam Treasure (trombone), Victoria Klewin (baritone saxophone) and Hannah Nicholson (backing vocals) — and the album further established Williams’ growing profile across the international soul scene.
Over the course of the following year, Hannah Williams and The Affirmations received even greater international attention, after smash hit-making producer NO I.D. sampled the heart aching hook of “Late Nights and Heartbreak” for Jay-Z‘s “4:44.” “It was an incredible catalyst,” Williams says in press notes, “as a change in our collective career, and getting a global audience. Suddenly, there were millions of predominantly American hip-hop fans listening to my voice, going ‘Is this from the ’60s? Is she dead?’” Unsurprisingly, as a result of the attention they received from “4:44,” the rising soul act spent the better part of 2018 on the most extensive touring schedule of their collective careers, including stops at SummerStage, Rumsey Playfield, Central Park, Brooklyn Bowl, the Toronto Jazz Festival and across the European Union, where they expanded their fanbase.
With even more attention on them, Williams and company were determined to make the record of their lives. The end result was their Shawn Lee produced effort, last year’s 50 Foot Woman. The album finds the band accurately capturing the visceral power of their live show on wax — white further establishing a sound that generally draws from classic soul, psych soul and funk, with a subtly modern take. 50 Foot Woman’s fourth and latest single “The Only Way Out Is Through” is a defiantly strutting song about resilience, self-determination, self-reliance, embracing suffering as part of growth and finding strength and power within yourself, centered around Williams’ powerhouse vocal, a shimmering psych soul groove and forceful horn section.
“I was going through a really tough break up and struggling with the idea of being alone when Hannah said to me ‘All you need now is you,'” the song’s writer Victoria Klewin explains in press notes. “That stuck in my head and the rest of the lyrics followed. The pain of that situation was hugely transformative for me, so I wanted to write a song about actively embracing emotional suffering in order to grow and also finding strength in your own autonomy.”
So there a couple of things you should know — if you were previously unaware:
Hannah Williams can sang. And I think she should be the most famous soul singer in the entire world — right this very second.
The Affirmations can give the Daptone crew a run for their money. They’re one of the best contemporary soul acts in the world. And if you don’t believe me, check out “Still In My Head” off Late Nights and Heartbreak and tell me that I’m wrong. That’s a hill, I’m willing to die on.
The song’s writer, Victoria Klewin couldn’t have imagined how relevant to this year and this particular period of history as she wrote it. We’re going to go through a horrible patch — and there’s no choice but to dig down deep and go through it as bravely as we can. The only way out is through.l.
Williams sings some feminist anthems, y’all.
Shot, edited and directed by Dawn Kelly, Will Nash and Bird Lime Media, the recently released video for “The Only Way Out Is Through” uses some deft video editing and effects as we see three different Hannah Williamses — one, who’s in the throes of heartache, a second, who’s defiant and proud, and the third, coolly drives the car. The video manages to evoke our innermost battle with ourselves and our psyche.