Clip: Mehr on Brown's Bag & Big Black
After breaking their old-school R & B overseas, the south-side duo
Brown's Bag are bringing it back home.
By Bob Mehr
June 30, 2006
THE LATEST LOCAL act to break out overseas has never even set foot on
a stage in Chicago. You could hardly call Ward and Sherrod Brown
newcomers: at 46 and 38, respectively, they've been playing music for
decades. But their soul duo, Brown's Bag, made its live debut just
days ago—in London.
Till now the south-side act has been strictly a studio project, but
its first CD, Labor of Love—released in the fall on a tiny local label
run by a friend—has become a word-of-mouth phenomenon in Europe's
rabid soul subculture, selling out its initial pressing of 1,000
copies. "It just got into the hands of the right people overseas,"
says Ward. "It showed us that there is a market for contemporary
soul." On their trip to London, Brown's Bag are playing a couple club
shows, making half a dozen radio appearances, and meeting with several
European record labels to shop their just-completed follow-up, Soul
This surprise success has been a long time in the making. The two men,
despite their shared last name, aren't related—in fact they came up
under pretty different circumstances. Ward grew up in Kenwood next
door to Muddy Waters. "I remember guys like James Cotton and Buddy Guy
and Howlin' Wolf would come by, and they would jam out in Muddy's
basement," he says. "And after they would get finished, my brothers
and I would kinda grab the equipment before they broke it down and do
some jamming of our own."
In the late 70s and early 80s he played drums in a series of R & B
show bands with his brothers, opening for the likes of Deniece
Williams, Carl Carlton, and Amuzement Park. In 1983 he got a job at
the local Black Hole label, run by south-side R & B impresario Kenny
Welles, working as a songwriter and studio hand. A decade later he
opened his own studio, Early Park Limited, which he'd go on to run for
eight years. Among his early walk-in clients was Sherrod Brown.
The son of Willie Brown, one of the longest running African-American
performers at the Lyric Opera, Sherrod had grown up in suburban
Country Club Hills and in the late 70s attended a small private school
downtown, where he proved himself a prodigious musical talent. "We
didn't have a school band," he says, "so I started one and taught the
kids how to play their instruments." Throughout the late 80s and 90s,
he pursued music between day jobs, kicking around as a pianist,
songwriter, and arranger for hire in a series of bands. "I was all
over the map musically—playing rock, funk, soul, whatever," he says.
"I was almost like a wedding singer—I learned to play everything."
Not long after Sherrod showed up at Ward's studio in 1995, the Browns
formed the short-lived R & B outfit King Kat, which gigged mostly on
the south side and never put out a record. Sherrod moved to Florida to
follow a job, losing touch with his partner for a few years, but
within a few months of returning to Chicago in 2001 ran into him on
the street. Picking up where they left off, they decided they wanted
to make an album of old-school 70sstyle R & B.
By 2003, when the Browns started working in earnest, Early Park
Limited was shuttered, so they used Ward's home studio, chipping away
at the project on evenings and weekends. They took turns on lead
vocals—Ward singing in a rolling baritone, Sherrod in a featherlight
falsetto—and played almost all the instruments themselves. Ward mainly
contributed drums and guitar, while Sherrod added keyboards, bass
synth, sax, and flute.
By last fall Labor of Love was finished. The Browns bypassed stateside
channels from the beginning, instead sending CDs overseas to target
the community of European soul freaks fostered by fanzines and
Internet radio. Within a few weeks tracks from the album began getting
online airplay on UK-based stations, then graduating to FM outlets in
London, Germany, and the Netherlands. Soon promoters, DJs, and labels
were calling to find out more; Brown's Bag have already licensed
tracks from Labor of Love to a pair of UK comps. "The contacts kept
coming so fast we couldn't keep up with them," says Ward. "It's just
been an incredible year for us—we're still trying to catch up."
Once the Browns return to Chicago, they plan to book their first local
dates. They're hoping to build a following here that's more mixed than
their crowds abroad. "In Europe our audience is a white audience,
which is cool to me," says Ward. "You know, Muddy Waters played to
white audiences much of his career. It's important to us that people
appreciate the music regardless of color. The black audiences here in
the States, I think they're searching. They don't want to be spoon-fed
what passes for R & B and soul these days. And I think they're coming
"There's lots of African-Americans that don't like modern R & B and
they don't like rap," says Sherrod. "And the way the music industry
is, mature audiences, they have nothing else to listen to except for
smooth jazz or something. With Brown's Bag we want to offer those
people an alternative."
A Little Set by Big Black
THE ORGANIZERS OF Touch and Go's 25th anniversary party in September
have already booked 24 of the festival's 25 featured performers,
including Black Heart Procession, Calexico, Arcwelder, the Ex, and
reunited acts like Girls Against Boys, Scratch Acid, and the Didjits.
Rumors have been proliferating about who'll fill the 25th slot, and
though it definitely won't be Big Black, the band will make a brief
appearance. Steve Albini confirms that he'll reunite with bassist Jeff
Pezzati, guitarist Santiago Durango, and their trusty drum machine for
a handful of songs.
Albini's tour schedule with Shellac, who are also performing at the
fest, is making it impossible for Big Black to rehearse a full set.
"We would like to get our shit together to play a couple songs as a
thank-you to Touch and Go," he says, "but I would hate it if people
spent a ton of money and made a special trip expecting a full Big
Black show." No further Big Black engagements are planned, contrary to
Internet chatter. "We've already been approached by promoters about
doing reunion shows," Albini says, "but that is definitely not going
One of the other big rumors has been about the Jesus Lizard. Half the
group—bassist David Sims and front man David Yow—will already be at
the fest playing in Scratch Acid. They're currently in contact with
guitarist Duane Denison, but drummer Mac McNeilly hasn't been in touch
with his old bandmates since 1998.
Billions Corporation founder David "Boche" Viecelli, who managed the
Jesus Lizard and is handling the Scratch Acid reunion, confirms that
the idea of getting the band back together has been discussed. "But
the only way anybody would consider it—and I think it's incredibly
unlikely—is if Mac were doing it," he says. "The guys haven't talked
to Mac in eight years, and there are no ongoing conversations that I'm
aware of. So I would say the possibility is unbelievably remote."
Jesus Lizard diehards can still hope something changes before
September— the goodwill surrounding the Touch and Go celebration has
already facilitated a couple reunions that once seemed impossible.
"It's kind of amazing what's happening with this anniversary," says
Albini. "People are doing the sort of stuff that would never happen
for any other reason."