Imagine you’re Philadelphia born-and-bred, Grammy award-winning songwriter Scot Sax. You’ve been living in Nashville for the past few years, making inroads on the local music scene and showcasing your performing chops via a rollicking “Philly Soul Revue” that pays tribute to your former hometown’s rich R & B, soul and funk heritage.
You and your wife, a singer-songwriter who also happens to be a cardiologist (providing the best t-shirt promo line ever: “Saving Lives and Playing Dives”) get invited back to Philly to play at The Locks at Sona, a new venue that has hosted such Nashville and Americana-associated acts as Jim Lauderdale, Caitlin Canty, Jeffrey Foucault and Fred Eaglesmith.
It’s a bit of a conundrum. Do you stick to your Philly Soul schtick or play up your new Nashville leanings?
For Scot and wife Suzie Brown, the answer was simple: You do both. And you do them full-bore, no explanations or apologies needed.
For the Americana side of the equation, you enlist your East Nashville neighbors Shelby Means (formerly of Della Mae) and Joel Timmons, who play under the moniker Sally & George, to open the show with some lovely, down- home ballads and country rockers. Their sweet harmonies complemented by Means’ supple upright bass playing and Timmons’ bluegrass-meets-Neil Young guitar solos, the duo set an intimate, familial tone for the evening with songs from their 2017 CD Tip My Heart, including the originals “Stowaway,” “Baby,” “Love is Gonna Live” and “Nashville Beach,” along with a moody cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”
Suzie Brown joined the duo on stage to sing harmony on their final number, the trio’s obvious comfort with each other evoking the intimate vibe of a gig at a small East Nashville venue — like, say, The Family Wash.
Means and Timmons returned the favor by backing Brown on her set, which opened with the upbeat “Good Everything.” Brown followed that tune with some mid-tempo numbers that coaxed out a distinctly Loretta Lynn-ish twang to her vocals. She alternated lovely ballads like “Masterpiece” with more upbeat numbers like “Everywhere I Go” to powerful effect.
Confessing at one point to feeling nostalgic for Philly, Brown shared the tender “Almost There,” a song she and Sax wrote when she was living in nearby Ardmore. “Settle In” was a happy crowd-pleaser highlighted by stirring harmonies from Brown, Means and Timmons.
The trio followed that with a rockin’ cover of Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” before Brown closed the set with another Philly-specific song, “Our Little Show,” which she explained was “about just hanging with Scot on a summer evening” in her former backyard nearby.
After a break, the hyper-energetic Sax jumped on stage clad in his trademark blue onesie jumpsuit, heart-shaped rose colored glasses, floppy knit cap and work boots. Having collaboratively resolved a technical glitch, the band launched into the humorous “I Can’t Decide” (that is: which side he prefers to sleep on, the song explains) and “Poopy Doopy Situation,” derived from his experience changing diapers for his two baby daughters.
The tight band consisted of local rhythm section Chris Martin (father of Nashville’s Molly Martin) on bass and Chris Giraldi on drums, Sax on a funked-up Telecaster and a quartet of top-notch backing vocalists: Jeanne Petersen of Nashville, plus Deb Callahan, Talia Genevieve and Cliff Hillis from the Philly area. Despite minimal rehearsals, they giddily dug in and delivered on Sax’s brand of spirited and highly infectious — “Somebody, call a doctor!” — Philly funk.
Sporting a goofy falsetto, Sax proceeded to answer the musical question “What Was I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)” with quips like “Probably start some kind of hobby… like crochet?” At one point he launched into a long bizarre monologue about a dream that reminded him “how weird it is to be able to use your legs,” which led improbably into a cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Hot Buttered Soul,” featuring Jeanne Petersen’s gale force vocals.
As Sax explained a bit later, it took moving to Nashville for him to fully appreciate his Philly funk-soul roots. Providing a shorthand example, he mimicked a Nashville waitress’s drawled greeting: “How’re y’all doin’? We’ve got sawmill-buttered biscuits today…” — at which point Sax’s impatient Philly self jumped in with an emphatic “Aw, go FUCK yourself!”
As the locals from the Philly neighborhood in which The Locks is located might say, “Dat’s how we roll in Manayunk.”
Following the faux-egotistical “I’m the Shit,” Sax and band launched into a series of classic R & B covers. ”And Then Came You” featured Petersen on vocals, while Deb Callahan took the lead on “Back Stabbers” (which according to Sax, reveals “how we REALLY feel about each other in Philly”).
The band then segued into The O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” during which Sax apparently wise-cracked something that caused Petersen to forget a verse. A mock-chippy blame game humorously ensued.
Sax invited his niece Alison Taylor onstage to sing a lovely version of the not- so-cheesy-after-all 70s pop number “Stoned in Love With You,” after which Talia Genevieve led the band on a raucous version of “Love Train.” Several audience members spontaneously formed a dance train that snaked through the crowd.
Sally & George plus Brown joined the band for a closing rendition of the fittingly one-chord “Love is a Simple Song,” which provided the perfect warm and cozy cap to the evening as snow began to fall quietly outside.
And that’s how Brown and Sax ended the battle between the Philly and Nashville tribes: with a big juicy kiss and hug for ‘em both.
More info on Brown and Sax along with song samples and show dates can be found on their website at suziebrownsongs.com and https://www.scotsax.com . A short YouTube video of the Philly Soul Revue playing at the show reviewed above is available at: https://youtu.be/uMGYVgckfaI
If you’re in or near Nashville, you can catch Sax on January 31 at Radio Cafe and February 20 at City Winery.