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November 20 - 27, 1998

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Movers and shaking

Barrence Whitfield still swings -- and rocks and belts out soul

by John O'Neill

The Movers It will be a matter of time, perhaps decades, before Boston's Barrence Whitfield assumes his rightful position in the history of music -- usually an honor bestowed with more than little touch of 20/20 hindsight. That's especially true with rock critics who generally have the advantage at getting the ball rolling on such matters as overlooked-but-influential characters. So let the bandwagon start here. Barrence Whitfield is, without exception, the greatest singing voice of the past 20-plus years and one of the most diverse performers to ever step on a stage. From early R&B, to country swing, to '70s soul, Whitfield has proven that he has the rare ability to hop genres and interpret a song in much the same way Otis Redding or Frank Sinatra were able to latch on to that undeniable extra "something" that gives a tune special meaning.

Blowing in from New Jersey to attend school in Boston, Whitfield, who plays Gilrein's this Friday, turned the city on its ear in 1984 with his band the Savages. Specializing in hopped-up, barely-in-control R&B screamers, the group were essentially a guy with a tremendous knowledge of early rock and roll being backed by a pack of Boston's best punk-rock musicians. (Guitarist Peter Greenberg and drummer Howie Ferguson had done time in early incarnations of the Lyres.) The result was an ungodly adrenaline-laced frenzy, and the Savages tore up clubs with an unequaled live show, while also producing two incendiary documents of their stand-out superiority with a self-titled album in 1984 and 1985's Dig Yourself (Rounder). A maniac shouter on par with early greats like Don Covay, Rex Garvin, and Bunker Hill, Whitfield eventually overhauled the line-up and began expanding his repertoire to include more soul-influenced work, while still maintaining the power and conviction of the Savages' now-legendary live shows.

As the Savages continued to evolve and eventually stall-out, Whitfield continued his search down the alleyways and dusty back roads of music. He would cut two roots-inspired albums with singer/songwriter Tom Russell that found him covering everyone from Bob Dylan and Steve Earle to Pops Staples and Ukulele Ike. He also contributed a cut to From Where I Stand (WEA/Warner), a compilation that traces the black experience in country music. And there was one final get-together for the Savages with 1995's Ritual of the Savages (Ocean Music) that recaptured some of the outfit's early spark, while also adding Motown, Barry White-style soul, and straight-ahead pop.

"I got disillusioned. I wanted to get together a rootsy soul band," says Whitfield of his discussion to pull the plug on the Savages and join the New Hampshire-based Movers. "The Movers came along, and I figured I'd help do this. I get a kick out of playing with them. I've always wanted to play with a horn section."

Once again able to re-invent himself with the straight-ahead jump blues of the Movers, Whitfield has come around almost full circle to the point of his origin -- if just a little more restrained. The Movers new CD, Your Move -- an eight-cut gem that once again sees him backed by a stellar band -- finds Whitfield's voice more self-assured than in his younger days as a pure primitive. There's still the same indelible soulfulness, and his phrasing is still a major strength, only now his singing has far more depth. There are strains of Arthur Alexander to Bullmoose Jackson to Big Al Downing (who, like Whitfield, has been able to run the gamut), as Barrence has become a complete singer. A fact he remains remarkably humble about.

"It was a great moment in my life to be able to cross over to old blues, old country, and bluegrass. Tom [Russell] made me realize I could do another thing and do it well. More than, `Ah, he's just a Little Richard R&B shouter.' I was very fortunate."

While he remains a popular draw in Europe, Whitfield continues to toil in relative obscurity in much the same way the singers he set out to duplicate did. Only now he's had the chance to be overlooked in more than one genre.

"There's so much music in America and so few airwaves that most bands don't get heard; and those that do, get heard too much. And that's where American radio has failed bands," says Whitfield without a trace of hard feelings.

"That's why I'm happy for Lucinda Williams who took six years to get an album together; and that album is one of this year's most striking."

So Whitfield continues to perform, because it's in him just like blood and bone. It's why he's traveled across the world to play live and traveled across the varied landscape of American music in his recordings. It's that same drive and passion that has made him one of the best ever to grab a microphone and belt out a song. And someday popular music will finally catch up to him.

"I'm 43 and I feel like I'm 27, cause music makes me feel young. It's energy. I've seen it insight riots, women ripping their tops off. That's the power of rock and roll."

As for chances of the legendary wildman, who'd often leave the stage with bloody knees and a ripped shirt, reappearing when the Movers hit Gilrein's this Friday?

"I can still do it, but I can't go as wild," he says with a chuckle. "I've got to pick my times to do it!"

Local Buzz

Wormtown's newest heavy-metal buzz, God Stands Still, have signed on with Pin Drop Records for the release of their upcoming CD. Pin Drop is also set to let loose with Holdstrong's second CD, Color of Old Money. The Worcester-based hardcore band are also looking to add a second guitarist and a road drummer for an upcoming tour of the US and Europe. All interested can call 798-3862. Lee Totten is scheduled to headline a set December 5 at the Philadelphia Music Conference. Garrison, a band we like to say is from Worcester, even though they rent an apartment in Allston (and therefore like to pretend that they're from Boston), are currently in the process of dotting the I's and crossing the T's for a three-album deal with a rather large indie label, which they don't want us to name yet. Congrats, boys. Worcester's proud.

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