Beyond its musical attributes, the exhilarating performance delivered by soul singer Sharon Jones and her band the Dap-Kings on Tuesday testified to the restorative power of music.
Other than her ultra-short hair, there was no outward evidence of the harrowing medical treatments Jones underwent after being diagnosed last year with Stage 1 bile duct cancer. The subsequent surgery and chemotherapy took her off the road for much of 2013 as well as placing on hold a recording career that auspiciously began in 2002.
The 57-year-old Augusta, Ga., native alluded to the episode midway through her show at the Wiltern when the band laid down a vibrant gospel vamp, which shifted her into preacher mode. "Last year when I was laid up in the hospital, I promised I was going to make it through to be at this theater here tonight!" she said, eliciting a cheer from the packed house.
Jones may say the same thing at every date on this tour, but nothing about the line -- or the rest of her show, for that matter -- felt rote as she and the 10-member Dap-Kings soared through a galvanizing R&B and soul revue that wasn't so much old-school as forever-school.
The format of a powerhouse singer fronting a large but nimble band buoyed by a horn section and backup singers fleshing out a core guitar-bass-drums lineup goes back to the '40s.
Although Jones and the Dap-Kings' act has roots in template-setting bands such as James Brown & the Famous Flames and Sly & the Family Stone, it's wrong to call what they do "retro," any more than you'd apply the term to Prince's recent marathon concert with a horn-rich band that also demonstrated the timeless appeal of the soul-funk big band.
There's a reason Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake have also on occasion delved into this musical milieu, and both could have learned a thing or two watching Jones.
Her vibrant and dynamic vocals inject each moment with life, and the turn-on-a-dime flexibility of the Dap-Kings was a wonder to behold throughout the 90-minute-plus performance.
The vast majority of her songs revolved around the many faces of love lost, love found, love betrayed and love just out of reach. Drawn from her new, belatedly released album "Give the People What They Want," "You'll Be Lonely" is an "I told you so" sendoff to a wayward lover set to a slinky slow-walk groove. "Long Time, Wrong Time" struts along like some of the great tracks from Memphis' Stax Records.
At times Jones recalled R&B-soul divas Tina Turner and Gladys Knight, with the latter also referenced with a funked-up reading of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" modeled on Knight's hit version in a nod that felt drawn from a sense of musical sisterhood rather than facile name-checking.
Jones even indulged a fan's request for her upside-down arrangement of Woody Guthrie's politically charged singalong anthem "This Land Is Your Land," which she and the Dap-Kings transformed into a riveting minor-key blues-gospel workout.
And her dancing? Forget what's come to be the standard of choreography in spectacles assembled for modern pop stars such as Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Beyonce, who exult in choreography that virtually demands audiences to take notice of their hard work. Jones' foot and legwork are no less dizzying but emerge organically from the music, a physical manifestation of the joy, heartbreak or sexual energy within each song.
At times you wish she'd tap material that would lift her out of the world of doomed romance more often, or more distinctively — any number of John Hiatt's songs spring to mind — but at any given moment in Tuesday's show there was hardly an opening for second-guessing.
The evening got off to a dazzling start with the opening 30-minute set by Valerie June. The Jackson, Tenn.-born singer and songwriter weaves a fascinating multiplicity of influences into her music: folk, blues, gospel and country, creating a distinctly intriguing style that can veer from the childlike wonder of Victoria Williams to the deep-rooted intensity of Richie Havens.
It's no wonder she attracted the likes of organist extraordinaire Booker T. Jones and Black Keys producer-songwriter Dan Auerbach to help out on her 2013 breakthrough album, "Pushin' Against a Stone."
Sporting a short black dress, turquoise leggings, gray western boots and mounds of dreadlocked curls, June opened with spare banjo-drums on the blues standard "Rollin' & Tumblin'." From there she moved from acoustic guitar to her "baby" banjo-ukulele to a stinging electric guitar on the closing number," "You Can't Be Told," an exploration of a life hell-bent on destruction.
She focused largely on songs from the album, which, as good as it is, doesn't capture the magic she invokes in the live setting. In each number, her steely voice sliced through the accompaniment, at times with the power of a warrior's blade, at others with the nuance of a scalpel, often leaving the impression that if this is how she goes about pushing against a stone, the stone doesn't have chance.
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