Published Jul 09, 2015The centrepiece of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings' opening night performance at the Halifax Jazz Festival was an extended version of "People Don't Get What They Deserve," from their latest album, Give the People What They Want. Jones, in a mid-set fever of hyperactive energy, took the crowd on a tour of her favourite 1960s dance moves. "Nice and clean," she said. "None of that twerking!"
Jones performed the boogaloo, the jerk, the pony, the mashed potato and even a James Brown-style camel walk, for which she had to go barefoot. "It's hard to do the camel walk with heels!" she said. After seven or eight different dances, Jones exclaimed, "I'm gonna try to do my own thing" and busted loose with a short freestyle routine.
"Her own thing" — that's a loaded phrase, in some respects, with a band like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings; one could argue they don't have a thing of their own at all. Like many revivalist acts, the band's driving aim seems to be to recreate the spirit of a long-since-passed "golden age" of a particular genre (1960s soul, in this case). It's a retro sound for a retrospective age, allowing listeners to have something ever so slightly less familiar in their music collection to play alongside the classics without any jarring gaps in tone or sentiment.
That's not in any way to diminish what Jones does with that goal: she's far too good a performer to let an imagined past overwhelm her present or her presence. She took to the stage following two earlier performances that set the tone for the evening: Chronos Band, the opening act proper, an Afro-soul ensemble from Halifax whose set was highlighted by appearances from local soul singers Cyndi Cain and Roxy Mercier; and Saun & Starr, Jones' backup vocalists otherwise dubbed "The Dapettes," who sang three songs, some of which appear on their first record on Dap Tone, released earlier this year.
But from her first words — "I feel like dancing!" — Jones made clear whose stage it really was last night. Opening with "Stranger to my Happiness," the 11-song set didn't overstay its welcome (the crowd could certainly have handled more, if not for the late hour) but rarely slowed its pace. Even more downtempo songs like "If You Call" and a cover of Gladys Knight's "In Every Beat of My Heart" maintained the passionate energy of upbeat numbers like "Long Time, Wrong Time" and encore number "100 Days, 100 Nights," the band's breakthrough track. Jones rarely stopped moving the entire show, shimmying across the stage with gusto and singing every yelp with driven intent.
I still found myself wondering if this music had anything to offer me beyond its nostalgia for an era I missed out on — and then Jones concluded the main set with "Get Up and Get Out," another track from Give the People What They Want. Introducing the song, Jones described her battle with cancer, and how the song (written before she was diagnosed) took on a whole new meaning for her: "It's like a testimony to me," she said. "I was telling cancer, 'Get up and get out!'" That revisionism, applied to the band's sound, was significant, moving.
She announced she was going to give the song her "best Tina Turner" and, following a slow build, she ripped into the number like it was the last thing she'd ever perform. It was gripping, thrilling and, even though it made no apologies for its linkages with the past, it was clearly an experience focused on the here and now. If Sharon Jones is a survivor, she's also doing her damnedest to make sure the beating heart of soul music survives alongside her.