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Clip: Mehr on Brown's Bag & Big Black

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  • Carl Z.
    Prodigal Soul After breaking their old-school R & B overseas, the south-side duo Brown s Bag
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 30, 2006
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      <http://www.chicagoreader.com/features/stories/themeter/060630/>

      Prodigal Soul

      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
      Satisfied.

      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
      around."

      "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."

      Big Black
      Gail Butensky

      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
      to happen."

      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."
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