If it’s any indication of the kind of local bands selling out 1,000 seat venues in Seattle, then undoubted “soul” is the new “grunge.” The up-and-comers this year seem to be setting aside last year’s grass-stained multipart harmonies for the heart-wrenching if not spasm-inducing fusion of gospel, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll that, when performed by the greats like James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin, we call “soul.” In fact, those are the greats idolized and masterfully emulated by Chewelah, Washington-bred Allen Stone, who just sold out two consecutive nights at The Neptune in Seattle and has already made his late night talk show debut on Conan. While Stone is but one of a score of contemporary artists mining the sounds of soul (Pickwick is another notable local one), his accessibility is unparalleled, even with his goofy sweaters, oversized clear plastic glasses, curled blond stringy hair and black felt fedora. Songs like “Satisfaction” and “Unaware” seem as likely to be heard in dentists’ offices and coffee shops as on independent radio, and they transcend age, race and gender. Which explains the quick ticket sellout and diverse crowd populating The Neptune last Sunday night.
Even up against icy road conditions from the beginnings of a Seattle winter storm, the show drew a full house of ecstatic fans. Opener Noah Gundersen drew his own gathering of young, cheering fans, though crossover between him and Allen Stone is more than likely. Stylistically, Gundersen’s songs lie deeper in folk roots, but both songwriters come from communities and families with strong Christian values. Gundersen, though, has documented his growing disillusionment with organized religion, and he appeared on stage (shorn of his characteristic Counting Crows-esque dreadlocks) more youthful and bright-eyed than Seattle’s other Christian-dropout, David Bazan. While he does lack Bazan’s chops and lyrical insight, Noah Gundersen held his own while performing some entertainingly melodic numbers accompanied by members of his family. Together, they ended the set with a communal rendition of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” an odd choice thematically, but one that joined the crowd against the natural forces outside together in song.
Before the start of the main set, the 19-piece Seattle Rock Orchestra lined the back half of the stage, flanking band leader Scott Teske and with Kim Roy conducting. Allen Stone and his band took center stage. I won’t lie: I’m not familiar with Stone’s entire catalog. You can read more in-depth and well written accounts of Allen’s sest on other local blogs, like Sound on the Sound and Seattle Music Insider. But I did come to a few observations. One, that the Seattle Rock Orchestra is fantastic and makes for a brilliant accompaniment to Allen Stone’s music, but by nature of being an orchestra, they pin down the tempo and mood of the songs, not allowing for improv and the unbridled enthusiasm that’s essential to goo soul, funk and R&B. I felt like I needed to see Allen Stone shakin’ it loose with his “greasy soul” before I saw the Unplugged version. Two, Seattle has really needed this kind of music, and by “this kind of music,” I mean unpretentious, non-selfconsious popular music. In the past, I’ve lived in two cities with strong funk, R&B and soul traditions -- New Orleans and D.C. -- but for the past two decades that I’ve lived in Seattle, I haven’t found any such bands that didn’t seem cheesy or palely derivative. Allen Stone is neither. He breathes new live into these genres, which have mostly been the province of dinner clubs, and makes Seattle proud. And three, he’s going to be huge! That he’s young (barely in his mid-20′s), has a great voice and a warm heart (throngs of fans waited at the merch booth just to get a photo with him), and effortlessly commands the attention, enthusiasm, and even participation of the crowd (those who peg Seattlites as motionless head-nodding mopes should attend a hometown Allen Stone show!) all nearly ensure his continued success. But reading about an Allen Stone show isn’t even close to the experience of witnessing one, so do not hesitate the next opportunity you get to see him live.