Interview: Barrence Whitfield on that Savage Soul, lasting musical legacies, and why no one goes out anymore
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s one thing when one of the most influential rock & roll bands of all-time like the Sonics roll into town (Yes, all-time). But it takes on a whole new level when they’re paired with a Boston music legend on the same bill.
Along with fellow homegrown garage rockers Muck & The Mires, rockin’ sockin’ soul monster Barrence Whitfield & the Savages will be sharing the stage with the Sonics at Brighton Music Hall on Friday as part of their current tour with the phenoms for what should be a hell of a show. Recently we had a chance to chat with the 59-year-old Whitfield about the changes in Boston’s live music scene since his start in the late-’70s, his dabbling into country music, the joyful mix of saxophones and guitars, and what the seemingly endless future has in store for one of our town’s true musical treasures.
Rob Duguay: What do you think has changed the most in Boston when it comes to live music over the past 45 years?
Barrence Whitfield: Places to play, there are hardly any clubs. Back in the day, there were so many clubs in the Boston, Cambridge, Somerville area and any band that was being put together had a chance to at least get to be heard from Boston all the way out to Western Massachusetts and even in a few southern parts of the state. There were so many avenues, so many clubs to play, where now there are only a few. You had huge clubs like the Channel, 9 Lansdowne, and the Rat along with little clubs like Jack’s in Cambridge and Chet’s Last Call near the Boston Garden. There were so many places to play and there were so many bands.
Do think maybe people aren’t going out as much, or the rise in rents in certain areas, that it contributes to there being not as many clubs in the Boston area as there were back in the day?
That could be a possibility plus the internet wasn’t the most powerful weapon in the world as it is today to keep you home for entertainment. I think back then people were more motivated to go out where you worked all day and you wanted to see live music sometimes six nights a week. From Thursday through Sunday you were definitely out there supporting your favorite band locally or nationally.
Barrence Whitfield & the Savages have already started the tour with the Sonics and you’ll be at Brighton with them on Friday. They must have had a huge influence on you as a musician, how excited are you to be on tour with such a legendary band?
It’s very exciting, here’s a band that has been around since 1961 and they’re pure, honest, raw, intense garage rock and roll from the northwest out in Washington state where the scene they grew up in had the Wailers, the Kingsmen and even Paul Revere & the Raiders from Portland, Oregon. They had an incredible music scene out there with a bunch of rock, soul and blues. I can’t see any bands of this generation lasting as long as the Sonics, I can’t imagine any of these bands lasting to even 2035. It’s just longevity and intense music that has influenced so many bands. Songs like “Psycho,” “Strychnine,” and “The Witch” are so great and intense.
Gerry Roslie, the lead singer of the band, can really bring it so it’s a great honor. My guitar player Peter Greenberg was in The DMZ and the Lyres and their main focus was always the Sonics, they love that band, so Peter is beside himself knowing that all these years have gone by and here we are continuing to do what we do with a band who has stood test of time.
Along with playing garage rock with the Savages, you’ve also tapped into the country music realm by contributing tracks on tribute albums to the legends like Merle Haggard and Don Covay as well as collaborating with Tex-Mex artist Tom Russell. Is country music that much of a shift for you versus playing rock and roll? What made you want to perform it in the first place?
I love music, I’m a musicologist in some way, but I’ve always wanted to try my hand at doing other styles of music. I love doing what I do with the Savages, being a wild rocker and screamin’ my guts out, but there’s another side of me that likes to do some hillbilly country and some stuff like that. Tom Russell has been a really great advocate of me doing music with him, those two records we did together were just magical times for me. There are other things that I’ve done that people forget, I’ve actually sang backup on a Jonathan Richman record.
That’s pretty amazing, a lot of us around New England are huge Jonathan Richman fans. Is Jonathan as weird as he is on stage? Does he act like a little kid? Every time I’ve seen him live he always acts like a 12 year old boy in a 50 year old’s body.
He’s a quirky guy. You’re always dealing with a genius and he has his odd moments but all in all the guy knows what he wants to put down and what he wants to do. I was very, very fortunate to record backing vocals, actually during the time we did the record was back in 1986 and I did a show with Jonathan so I was a Modern Lover for a day.
One thing about The Savages that I love, especially on the latest record Dig Thy Savage Soul, is the saxophone. The horns that you have coming from your songs are spellbinding and there are a lot of garage rock bands nowadays that don’t have a horn section or any type of brass involved with their sound. What made you want to bring the horns in?
Sax has always been an important weapon in rock and roll for many, many years as it goes back to the days of jump blues with guys like Big Jay McNeely, Joe Houston, and Sam “The Man” Taylor. They were jazz players but they wanted to take it a little bit more further. These are saxophone players who blow their brains out and we always wanted to incorporate that sound. The Sonics have a sax player in their music too, so sax has always played an important part in rock and roll for many years. It’s the rawness and it’s kept a lot of guys going, it’s definitely an added weapon in your arsenal. You’ll see it in action at the show with both the Sonics and the Savages.
Do you & the Savages have anything in the works when it comes to having a new release in 2015?
We got a new album coming out sometime in July. It’s our second release with Bloodshot Records and you can look for it as we approach the end of the summer.