Put on Barrence Whitfield and the Savages' brand new album, Dig Thy Savage Soul, and you may be transported to a different time and space. It's a place where guys asked girls to dance, college kids needed nerve to go to the black band's house party, the primary drug was brown liquor, and zero people felt the need to photograph their whole night and show their Internet friends that they were having a blast. It was about dancing 'til you sweat and leaving all your bullshit behind in the moment. In fact, anyone familiar with the National Lampoon classic, Animal House, may hear Barrence Whitfield blow and immediately embark down Memory Lane, on which Otis Day and the Knights perform "Shout."
When PW caught up with Whitfield on his way to Rochester, NY, he declared that they'd be nothing like that scene. "We’re better than that!" he exclaimed. "That was a frat thing, with the booze and the girls goin' crazy, but we’re a complete band. We did at one time do some college things back in the day; they were much more manic than that one. There were bodies flying everywhere, walking around amost ankle-deep in beer. I remember a guy on crutches throwing his crutches away. We’re much better than that band." Whoa! Fair enough, Otis Day and Co. were pretty a fictional band put together to perform the Isley Brothers classic for effect. But there is no shortage of rave reviews of Whitfield and his crew's live energy. And propelling the whole thing is Whitfield's tremendous pipes.
As it were, it's never any surprise that Whitfield's roots are in Jersey. He spent most of his childhood in the Newark and East Orange school districts and singing for his uncle, a preacher, in the church across the street. "He’d always make sure that I was dressed properly and hair cut and ready for a good ole' time in church," he says. Perhaps that's where Whitfield unknowingly caught the performance bug, because the 58-year-old's been touring the U.S. and Europe for the past few decades. He gigged without the Savages for a little while in the '90s and early 2000s, but in the last half-dozen years, he and his original band have been at it again. And they're jumping on the opportunity to perform their new batch of songs. But it's not the first time he's been to Philly.
"I haven’t played in Philly in a while—early 2004, maybe 2004, I was with another band," Whitfield said, though he couldn't quite place it. "I used to play a club; it was on South Street." "Dobbs?" I asked. "That's it," he corroborated.
When he and his band take the stage at Milkboy, hopefully they'll damn nearly blow the roof off. And Whitfield's voice has been known to open people up and bug out their eyes. He's got a powerful instrument. It's a wail, a scream that's fueled by blues, soul and rock 'n roll. It's the kind of singing voice that you hear and think, That's got to hurt. He says he doesn't do anything special to maintain it, too, which is insane. "No rituals, it’s all natural—just being who I am, and I might howl like a wolf, but it’s a natural thing. I’m just very lucky to have such a good voice that’s lasted through so much." No teas? No trade secrets, vocal rests or dietary restrictions? "I take care of myself very well. I’m not an abuser of any kind of liquor or drugs, and I don’t smoke. I’m very careful of how I take care of myself."
Whitfield's ready to bring the ruckus, too, and his ambition is clear. "There’s a good time, and then there’s a manic, crazy sick good time, and you have people walking away from your shows in tattered clothes and bloody . It’s all in good fun and good spirit. You gotta excite people." On the subject of molly and how the children rarely actually go to shows for the music but for the party times, he said: "With the music that’s out there, people don’t get excited anymore. They may get excited, but they have to insert themselves with pills just to get excited. They’re so worn out by the drug itself that the music doesn't even matter. When people come to our shows, it’s all about the real fun—the real fun that happened back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Maybe a little enhancement with this and that, but most people wanted to party and rock and forget about the shit going down during the day. Whether it’s family or work or school, they needed to get away from that scene and just have fun." Preachin' to the choir, sir.
Whitfield finished on a note of spunk, with a command: "Tell the people in Philly, we’re comin’. And we’re gonna take the Liberty Bell with us."
Thurs., Sept. 12. 9pm. $15. With the George Urgo Band. Milkboy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St. 215.925.MILK. milkboyphilly.com