Lost then found, the Relatives bring back 'The Electric Word' : /music
Mar 09, 2013 (The Oregonian - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
"No, no, no," Rev. Gean West says by phone, and you can imagine him smiling and shaking his head all the way down in Dallas. "They wasn't really for it. We was in the church, like we are now, but they weren't ready for us. It was way before our time."
We're talking Texas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Relatives, the group West formed with his brother, Rev. Tommie West, were ruffling Sunday bests with heavy funk, soul and psychedelic infused gospel.
"The younger people, they seemed to be with it," West says, "but the older people, they was just looking."
With his 77th birthday approaching, West is the older people now, and the younger folks They're still with it. It was someone stumbling upon the Relatives a few years ago that put in motion the events leading to last month's release of "The Electric Word" on Yep Roc Records.
In 2009, they played the Continental Club in Austin, their first show in more than three decades. Since then they've played festivals as big as Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. They're in Portland tonight, opening for James Hunter at the Aladdin Theater. Next week, they'll be back in Texas for the South by Southwest music festival, where they'll inevitably grab headlines, because the record is that good and the story is better.
Analog appeal in a digital world
The obvious comparison is to the folk singer Rodriguez, who released two records in the early 1970s and then disappeared -- only to have his career kick-started by the documentary (and soundtrack) "Searching for Sugar Man," which just won the Academy Award for best documentary feature.
But the rebirth of the Relatives came together at roughly the same time a couple of Portland record store owners were tracking down the lost voice of loner folk, Bob Desper, in a cluttered Albany apartment after having stumbled upon a copy of his 1974 record, "New Sounds," in a thrift store bin on the coast.
These are analog stories revived for a digital culture. When so much of everything seems made to be marketed, optimized for search engines and cynically crafted for clicks and shares, these aren't that. Yet they share so well because who doesn't like fun
And good God is the Relatives record fun.
If you've heard the Relatives, you probably heard them on the last Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears record, "Scandalous," where they manage to make "You Been Lyin'" sound uplifting despite the song's accusatory guitar work.
"We did some shows over SXSW where we played with them, and it was like music napalm," Lewis said in a 2011 interview. "Everybody was into it and people just flipped out. They're like the atom bomb."
A righteous racket
The rediscovery of the Relatives begins with a relic. Mike Buck, the co-owner of Antone's Record Shop in Austin, had a cracked copy of "Don't Let Me Fall," a 45 the Relatives released in the 1970s. He played it for artist and DJ Noel Waggener.
Waggener went searching for the band and came up empty. And continued to come up empty until he came across Gean West's name on a church website. Not West's church, however. He was mentioned in passing on another church's site. But it was enough.
"They called me on my cellphone, and that's how the first record got started," West says.
That was 2009's "Don't Let Me Fall," a collection of those old singles, and songs from another recording session West still had in his possession.
"So they asked me to come to Austin at the album release and sign autographs," West says. "I asked them, 'Can I bring some of the other fellas with me, if I can get in touch with them '"
The Relatives: Don't Let Me Fall from KLRU-TV on Vimeo.
Maybe they'd sing a few songs, he offered. In all, three of the original seven members -- the West brothers and percussionist Earnest Tarkington -- were in good enough shape to sing, but that was enough.
Waggener, who does art for Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, got a copy to guitarist Zach Ernst "and we started listening to it in the van all the time," Lewis said. "And Zach was like, 'Maybe we should play with them.'"
Which is how Spoon's Jim Eno, who produced Lewis' last record, came into the picture. Eno produced "The Electric Word," and Ernst and drummer Matthew Strmiska, both now formerly of the Honeybears, are in the band.
The new record is a righteous racket, the kind of Sunday morning that knows Saturday night. "Let Your Light Shine" grooves and shouts. "Bad Trip" is haunted and lonely: "Don't know how to pray You're on a bad trip."
"Speak to Me (What's Wrong With America )" is a soulful prayer for racial equality that dates to the band's beginnings. "I Will Trust in the Lord" closes the record with a hush of a cappella gospel.
If the world wasn't ready for the Relatives once upon a time, they are now. And Gean West -- with thanks to all who have helped -- knows who gets the credit for that.
"It's an act of God," he says. "One place in the scripture says, 'Go in the highways and the hedges.' Don't just be between those building walls, those church walls. Go everywhere and carry the word."
And if you can put it to a groove people can dance to, that helps.
-- Ryan White
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