Arguably the most riveting musical performance on Academy Awards night didn’t emanate from the Kodak Theatre stage during the ceremony itself, but from Alabama’s neo-soul band St. Paul & the Broken Bones. The act capped Elton John’s annual Oscar-viewing party and fundraiser for his AIDS foundation.
Just as music mogul Clive Davis typically uses his pre-Grammy Awards bash to spotlight new talent , John also is a musical tastemaker who likes to bring young acts to the public’s attention.
“When I heard this band’s first album, I immediately called [group leader] Paul Janeway and spoke to him,” John, 69, told the crowd that had just helped him raise $7 million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. His 25th annual Oscar night benefit generated money from sales of tickets for the dinner and concert, texted donations throughout the evening and a live auction after the televised award ceremony ended.
The audience that occupied tents set up in West Hollywood Park for the event included several celebrities who made pitches from the stage during commercial breaks in the Oscar telecast urging those on hand to donate. Among them: actress Sharon Stone, actor Jeffrey Tambor and his fellow cast members from Amazon’s “Transparent,” actress Laverne Cox and John himself.
Other music and entertainment world attendees included John’s longtime musical collaborator, lyricist Bernie Taupin, Quincy Jones, Smokey Robinson, Russell Simmons, Caitlynn Jenner, Beck, Chris Cornell, Lea Michelle, Leona Lewis and Katharine McPhee.
“This is one of my favorite bands,” the veteran English rocker said before turning the stage over to St. Paul & the Broken Bones, whose latest album, “Sea of Noise,” was recorded at the celebrated FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
The storied studio is where countless classic soul, R&B and rock recordings have been made since the 1960s. The likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, the Allman Brothers Band, the Rolling Stones, John and Paul Simon have recorded in the space.
If lead singer Paul Janeway doesn’t fit the visual image of the classic soul man — he’s white, stocky and sports nerdy half-frame horn-rimmed glasses — he more than filled the role vocally with as elastic voice that has a piercing falsetto. Think part Al Green, part Van Morrison.
The event’s host joined the group for a searing duet with Janeway on “I’ll Be Your Woman” from “Sea of Noise,” a torchy vow of romantic commitment given extra musical heft from the band’s three-man horn section, which supplements the core guitar-bass-drums-organ quartet.
The group opened with the new album’s first track, the mantra-like “Crumbling Light Posts, Pt. 1.” Janeway worked the stage in the tradition of Redding and James Brown, first throwing off the cape he wore at the beginning, then pacing restlessly while guiding the tight band to ever higher emotional heights.
That also took him into the realm of another white soul singer, Morrison, whom he paid homage with Morrison’s R&B workout “I’ve Been Working,” and its insistent repeated refrain of “woman, woman, woman, woman.”
At the end of the 45-minute set, Janeway not only dropped to his knees, but rolled under the stage as band members looked around to see where their front man had disappeared to.
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