Billy Price is a musical
Clark Kent. Entering the club, it's easy for even the most rabid fan to
overlook the bespectacled, mild-mannered man nursing a cup of convenience-store
coffee. But when he takes the stage, he transforms into one of the most
dynamic singers you'll ever hear, anywhere, anytime.
Price has been the
keeper of the deep soul flame in the mid-Atlantic region since forming
the Keystone Rhythm Band in 1977. That group disbanded in 1990 after four
albums of soul and R&B. Following a brief retirement, Price returned
with a jump album in '93, a collection of obscure soul nuggets in '97,
and a collaboration with producer Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams
in 1999. Each record demonstrated the increasing strength of his voice,
but nothing matches the live show.
The current band features
three horns, keyboards, guitar, and rhythm section; it's a sound that
transports you straight to Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Tight arrangements,
tasteful backup vocals, and stunning solos perfectly complement Price's
passionate delivery. His interpretations are moving and intense; Price
doesn't so much sing a song as channel it. And he does it with a purpose.
"There aren't a lot of people who are doing this style of music.
It's not that accessible to people, [and I don't] want people to stop
with me," Price said a few years back. "If you listen to me
and you never hear James Carr, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay, and Al Green, you're
cheating yourself." Each night, then, is a session of "soul
school" where listeners can learn about the genre's masters.
The set still features
the most requested songs from the Keystone Rhythm Band days, including
"You Left the Water Running" and "A Nickle and a Nail."
Price intersperses belly-rubbing grooves ("Bump and Grind,"
" Somethin' 'Bout 'Cha") with uptempo funk ("Let Yourself
Go") and explores themes of infidelity ("Open House at My House,"
"Room Next to the Room"), and everyday triumphs over the blues
("I Know It's Your Party").
Even better, Price's
show always features tunes we can't believe we've never heard before,
and he turns them into instant live classics. On this night, Johnnie Taylor's
"Last Two Dollars" was the show stopper. It's a great image:
a woman down on her luck, saving one dollar for bus fare and the other
for the juke box, because tonight she's got to hear some blues.
It's unfortunate that
only a small crowd turned out. On a previous Price appearance at this
venue, when the Keystone Rhythm Band was on its farewell tour, the room
was packed; Billy Joel even stopped by after a Washington, DC gig. He
must have been mystified to see hundreds of people singing along to "Eldorado
Cafe"--a song he probably never heard before or since. Maybe Price's
fans are getting too old to spend 45 minutes looking for a place to park
and waiting until nearly 11 p.m. for the music. Bar owners take note:
Price sold out two nights in a row in Annapolis the following weekend.
Those shows started at 7:30. Coincidence?