From my residence south of the Village of New Paltz and just west of the north-flowing Wallkill, I have been eavesdropping for years on the Ulster County Fairgrounds across the river: sometimes, the sternum-shaking report of fireworks; occasionally, wildly distorted public-address announcements cutting through the smoke and exhaust of the fair; at least once, motorcycles whining contrapuntally in a spherical cage.
But mostly, it is music: a lot of jingoistic country rock, bro (rather empowered these days), and a lot of your Poppa’s Top 40, too, because your Momma don’t, in fact, dance. Occasionally, my experienced old ear would detect the failing timbre of a legendary voice – B. J. Thomas, for example – making the rounds of the County Fair collection points, making its way recognizably through the soft summer night. Oh, the hits!
One night, though, what I heard pulsing across the river with laser precision was some ultra-badass and unfamiliar funk music, some athletic young groove, fierce players laying it down. My perked attention next took in the wicked horn charts, academy-schooled, piping-hot over the top of tense, jazzy changes in the tradition of Stevie Wonder circa “Golden Lady” and “Those Days.” All of it – the tight performance and the fierce arrangements – came across the river with a crystalline, arresting clarity. And none of it, significantly, was music I knew. This was not the Charlie Daniels Band. And if this was the band at your wedding, you must be Chelsea Clinton or someone.
Oh, I sussed out who it was right there from my front stoop, miles away from the action. It was Mad Satta: the insanely good, local and original uptown-funk-and-soul band. Fronted by the dynamic, smoldering voice of Joanna Teters and with musical direction by bassist Ben Carr, Mad Satta has infamously upped the ante for party/dance music around here in recent years, setting a rather unreachably high bar for local groove-merchants and doing it, for the most part, without resorting to the power of popular repertoire.
For all of us, playing covers is a tricky, Faustian deal. Nothing gets a crowd engaged like an old Beatles song, but then asking the same crowd to appreciate your originals is much like serving them a tart, firm, locally sourced organic plum right after you’ve just shoved a family-sized Tootsie Roll down their gullets. Covers are powerful sweets, and therein lies their danger.
Even from my awed stoop, the questions facing Mad Satta began forming in my head. What is the path for a modern, fusion-flavored original groove band like this? Where is the market, and what does it ask of them? If they wanted, they could declare themselves a top-shelf (like, a 1926 Glenfiddich) event and wedding band, starting out with a $5,000 “bro rate,” ascending from there per the client’s ability to pay, while keeping a finger or two in the original music Hail Mary lotto as well. Not a bad way to live, if play music you must; but this clearly was not their design.
Specifically, Mad Satta’s sound came to rest at a fork in the musical present. Playing contemporary, sophisticated soul music on real guitars and basses and drums, keys and horns, they were kind of in a no-person’s land. The megahit, fantastically musical productions of Mark Ronson or Greg Kurstin are programmed and electro for the most part. The big names doing it with the old tools are doing it staunchly old-school – namely the elegant scholarship of Dap-Tone and kindred bands and labels, a niche that has in the last few years lost two giants in Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley (and of course the ambivalently retro/modern Amy Winehouse a few years before that). Vacancies for a badass upstate band living in the boroughs now?
You could feel the pressure on this wildly talented band to choose a path. The first clues to their answer come in the facts that they are no longer Mad Satta, at the moment working under the Joanna Teters name, and that the Mad Satta rhythm section has stayed together for the new initiative but dropped the horns – indicating, perhaps, a decision to go newer rather than older.
But the actual answer, expressed in the brand-new Joanna Teters record Warmer When It Rains, is considerably more complex than that. Track One, “Ride with You,” is demonstrative, edgy, contemporary R & B, as are quite a few of the eight tracks on this concise, powerful effort. While Track Two, “Through the Night,” doesn’t exactly back off on Track One’s turf claim, it does reestablish contact with the band’s timeless jazz/soul bearings.
The dichotomies of Warmer When It Rains are perfectly illustrated in two contrasting (and stellar) ballads: “Midnight,” an entirely contemporary, hip-hop-inflected bit of production R & B, is all friction; stilted, glitch rhythms; electro-minimalism; and a huge hook. Five tracks later, the finale “So Easy to Love” is an exquisite and utterly naturalistic homage to uptown soul and Motown. It might make some listeners wish the whole album were in that vein, but Teters is counting on the willingness of her audience to go forward in all directions. About this stylistic straddle, Teters remarks, “We have decided to not shy away from trying to do both, and so far it seems that the contrast has intrigued listeners, not turned them away.”
Well, color me intrigued. Joanna Teters and band celebrate the release of Warmer When It Rains with a show at BSP on Friday, February 16 at 7 p.m. Joining Teters on this loaded bill are Aubrey Haddard, the brimstone-bearing, dirt-floor-stomping frontwoman of the region’s other premier original groove band, Breakfast for the Boys, and Mother Vinegar. Tickets cost $10 at the door. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. For more information, visit www.bspkingston.com.