One of the things that makes Austin such a cool city in the midst of so much… Texas… is the music scene. A perfect example of the innovative industry is Mama K & the Shades, a 10-piecer delivering hot tracks in a funky-soul-r&b-jazzy flavor. Their latest album, Honey Made is a sweet yet powerful blend of Kelsey Garcia (vocals), Willie Barnes (vocals), Johnny Storbeck (guitar), David Thacker (keys), Lee Braverman (bass), Chris Barnes (drums), Wesley Gonzales (percussion), Joseph Morrow (trumpet and flugel horn), Dustin Hunter (sax), and Donald McDaniel (trombone). The band released their album Honey Made last year, creating some major buzz.
Blasting me out of Saturday morning oblivion and into the very funky Now, “Too Wide” is a celebration of the human respiratory system. The lyrics sojourn into a pool scene, a serene cerulean pool with a shining monolithic source of the ultimate in Fun: the slide. At the center of it all is a fat kid who just wants to know what it’s like to experience the feeling of a near freefall. But alas, his tale does not end well, due to the unforgiving walls of the slide and the boy’s pork rind hobby. The song that came out of the cautionary tale has made my day.
“Main Squeeze” moves forward like a bass-jacked train cars (sort of like what Bugs Bunny always seemed to find when he needed reliable transportation). The horns flirt with the drums, as Kelsey’s vocals offer devotion. Then, the next track enters like someone who is completely invisible except for their shoes. “Good Things” has inviting horns, smooth vocals, and soft percussion. The vocals drizzle like melted chocolate taking its time. Everything combines to create a fantastical party track.
In “The Shades,” Willie, cavalier but insistent, invites the listener to pay attention to what he has to say. He sings of each member of the group, attesting to the greatness of The Shades. Everyone has their moment to shine. David plucks out a divine solo on the keys. Willie possesses a power so palpable, given just the audio, that it must be so dense when you see it in the flesh that you can taste it. And it tastes like honey.
I listened to “Like a Fool” three times before I could translate my reaction into words. This is a track so good, my brain found it difficult to shift its attention from aural pleasure mode to stringing a few humble words together. Like an expert, Johnny painted with his guitar wide, rounded – almost pointy – waves of sound into that private space every listener guards between his ears. Willie’s voice cried out in hurt and outrage, acceptance, and moving forward, and it was the most beautiful thing. That is, until Johnny shredded out a solo, dirty talk in electrical form, transmitted from his guitar to the listener’s neurons.
Keyboard opens the window to the fresh night air as the band gets into the groove of “Midnight Train.” Joe and Dustin blow their horns with the care of elderly people eating ice cream. Each note is so perfectly calibrated in every way. Not a drop wasted. The next track, “Baby Got Away,” has a larger than life sound. Like a child visiting a circus, this track takes over your world and makes you crave something sweet.
Bass notes wind up like a swimmer preparing to take the plunge as “Love Machine” begins. What ensues is a séance powered by staccato vocals, summoning Mr. James Brown from the Other Side. Just as I’m beginning to google lyrics, everything changes, and Kelsey is singing sultry Spanish lines, with all the feeling of that fat kid dreaming of going down the slide. It all changes again, with a transition back to the fast-paced belt-your-heart-out soul. Somehow, that interlude about “la maquina del amor” gives the song a different flavor, stretching the experience to a less hurried, less harried pace.
For a song about smells (or perhaps because it is a song about smells), “Stank” is brilliant. Bad odors are unpleasant but tolerable. Although I guess that may not be the case if you have congestive heart failure. Guitar transforms into a metallic physics demonstration of a metal ball bearing spiraling down a metal chute as “Nnedi’s Song” kicks off. Once the track is in full swing, it proceeds like a fast game of four square, the focus bouncing from player to player, with each strategically slowing down and speeding up to elicit a reaction from the listener ranging from enjoyment to infinite rhythm-driven euphoria.
The first bass beats of “Hot” tell me I’m in for something good. Willie speaks the verses, narrating the tale of a recent rendezvous. He lets out the words at just the right pace so as to keep you on the edge. Each chorus bursts out of its simmering antecedent verse, releasing the built-up tension. The song comes in at over 11 minutes, but it is clear that the band could have kept going. There is more hotness to be heard.
Mama K & The Shades will be hitting the stage at SXSW this year with performances on Wednesday and Saturday. See them live (it’ll cure what ails ‘ya) and check out Honey Made. I hope to hear more from the band in the future.