Forty-five minutes after checking into a downtown Atlanta hotel room I'm at a venue called Apache witnessing a simulated sex act on stage.
Dressed in knee length golf socks, hunting shorts, admiral style sleeveless top, gold chains and with a black lace glove on his right hand, the... er, artist in question peacocks his way into the spotlight. Flamboyant? Certainly, but not the kind of flamboyance that Luther Vandross was known for; more like Prince before Head became Darling Nikki. And this bloke has everyone in the joint staring at him before he's even sung a note. I looked around at the two couples next to me who clocked him and started laughing. A guy at the bar is scratching his head Stan Laurel style. The bar staff act differently, they've witnessed the show before, so they just stop what they're doing and watch.
"Hi everyone I'm Rahbi," says our man as he launches into the anthemic, funky soul of Sistas & Brothas, a tune with more than a touch of the Rahsaan Pattersons about it. But it's on the seductive Take U 2 A Dream that he really cranks up the heat, plucking an innocent looking lady from her group of friends to join him on stage. Soon he's serenading her like he's forgotten we're here, about 150 of us. One lyric leads to another and slowly Rahbi moves down to her waist - at which point his subject grabs the back of his head to put him right in the mixer. The audience is delighted: the only thing keeping the two from direct contact is Rahbi's microphone. Then, still with lady's hand on the back of his head, he starts to groan, moan, sniff and breathe heavily, amplified to the whole room. As the song finishes and the lady returns to her friends, we all started lighting cigarettes.
Welcome to Atlanta and the 2nd annual International Soul Summit.
Friday morning, after an espresso, eggs over easy (I'd heard that in a Karyn White song) and the closest I could get to a full English, I'm wondering if the Summit could live up to the promise shown at last year's event. Visionary Atlanta DJ Terry Bello recognized the need to connect the professionals working within soul. The goal was to propel the music to the next level and help build careers by everyone networking and getting to know each other. The passion and sheer optimism made 2006 a resounding success, but only six weeks after there was, for Terry, personal tragedy, when his girlfriend passed away. It's a miracle that Bello was able to pull it all together again, but he had, and this year promised to be even bigger. With the first day's schedule filled with four panels. covering Grass Roots Marketing, Distribution (Digital & Retail), Management and the first Artists Speak - 1 needed to be sharp.
The morning's panels were filled with essential information for aspiring artists, who I'd estimate made up at least 75% of the attendees. At midday we all headed en masse to the acoustic showcase at Sugar Lounge. A 30-minute trek in 100 degree heat later we arrive to find the stunning April Hill performing songs from her Marlon Saunders produced debut. These were truly acoustic performances, intimate, with no mic and just a guitar for accompaniment. Hot shot Dain Harris then made John Legend's Heaven Only Knows his own, backed by the audience on the hook - in such vocally competent company, it's best, I find, to mime - and vocal powerhouse Twan from St. Louis ripped through Sam's A Change Is Gonna Come (a song that would prove popular this weekend). Back at the conference some of the artists got restless and an impromptu jam broke out on a piano tucked away in the corner of the hall. Californian Jennifer Johns (who had performed at Fiona Bloom's Bloom Effect Showcase the night before, singing a great rendition of Sade's Cherish the Day), NY's LaSonya Gunter & Steve Wallace all let it out in song.
That evening the conference moved on to a listening party at Moods Music in the Little 5 Points district of the city. Albums featured were Gordon Chambers' Love Stories and Eric Roberson's excellent Left. At the end, singer Steve Wallace called his friend James White [of the Sirius B project] to pick us up. Fellow Brit attendee - DJ Mike Ashley (Life & Soul Promotions), Steve, LaSonya Gunter & I all jumped into White's Nissan Pathfinder, driving through the streets of ATL, windows open and stereo cranked up. Unlike back home (Maidstone) our chauffeur had Donny Hathaway's version of Giving Up at full pelt. At exactly the right point three minutes in LaSonya & Steve both hit a loud "But!" I never spoke to Mike about it, but I'm sure he loved every minute too.
The next showcase took place on a rooftop high above the city lights. Heston, a singer who looks like a heavyweight boxer holding an acoustic guitar (without gloves) performed the emotive and direct anti war song Good Morning America. "It ain't right, to fight, for a cause that ain't ours". This guy has the potential to be a soul superhero.
Saturday started early for me. As well as covering the event for Echoes I was present as a speaker on the International Panel to talk about my compilation Soul & The City. I wanted to keep the discussion positive, if possible. It wasn't. My panel colleague, Allan Johnston (of Music Specialist), in an authoritive tone followed my first optimistic comments with his one line
assessment, "The music industry... is shit." Cue laughter and a few nodding heads.
The big event on Day 2, though, was the 'Artist Speaks' session. In order of standing ovation: Ann Nesby, Eric Roberson, Joi, Maysa, Frank McComb, Conya Doss, Alison Crockett (whose Bare promo album is a Roberta Flack-styled killer), Gordon Chambers, Marlon Saunders, Yahzarah, Big Brooklyn Red, Julie Dexter. Tre (Pharcyde) and more.
Indie soul leader Eric Roberson told everyone, "We're in a race with the majors to see who can benefit the most from the digital revolution." When asked what the definition of 'underground' is he offered up two Brits, Lewis Taylor & Omar, as the answer.
Joi said "I'm the definition of underground. My album comes to you direct from my house to your hand." She described the music game as, "beautiful, fulfilling, inspiring, free, challenging, painful and a struggle... all at the same damn time!"
The negativity toward musical definitions in general was discussed with the term 'Neo: taking a battering. Big Brooklyn Red: "Neo-soul killed it: they wanted us all to go wearing earthtone."
The sessions ran over, the artists had spoken. So popular were the panels, Donnie and acclaimed producer of Mary J Blige's Seven Days Malik Pendleton were simply in attendance. I made a B-Line for Malik, whose unreleased Atlantic album Look Around is regarded in the Dodds house as a soul classic.
Talking on the sidewalk outside the Hotel - Malik wanted a smoke - a small crowd gathered. Amongst them Mr. Maygreen (aha Rasheem Kilo Pugh, who co-produced much of Lauryn Hill's debut), songwriter Eric King (Vale Tudo) and a young American Idol Season 2 boot camp finalist called D.St Louis who was keen to impress. He asked Malik, "Can I sing something to you?" Then he was off: "I was born by the river... in a little tent... " Beating his chest with one hand, his wrist blinged to the max, he changed the chorus to, "My change is gonna come" and carried on till the end of the song, oblivious to passers by. I was thinking, 'I gotta get this blokes Myspace page URL'. There was silence, though, and we all looked at Malik for his verdict. "Yeah you're baaad," he says, "But... it's not my change is gonna come, it's a change is gonna come. That song is about all the people; were all gonna get that change. When you start singing about the one, you, you're losing that audience, you're losing those people"
At this point I had to head off to catch the final night's performances Sugar Hill - Eric Roberson and the Jam Session. Punters for the wind-up gig included Trina Broussard, Jol & George Clinton's manager Barbarella Bishop. Highlights were the star studded. funky performance of All I Do led by PJ Morton (and featuring Peter Hadar, Russell Taylor &, Carol Riddick) and yet again the insuppressible Rahbi, who shared the stage with Rahsaan Patterson for a stomping cover of Michael Jackson's PYT (see below).
At the airport lounge I looked back on the past few days. If last year was the celebration, this was the clean up. Just getting together and talking about soul will not make it hugely popular. Grafting and following up on the promises made at this conference will. This scene is growing, 2006 saw 400+ people attend, 2007 had 1500 people through the doors. The talent and music is as strong as ever.
To quote Twan, Malik Pendleton & Sam Cooke, "A Change Is Gonna Come."