The Mercy Brothers

Barrence Whitfield and the Mercy Brothers at Club Helsinki

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 20, 2004) – Barrence Whitfield hasn’t given up r&b for good. Boston’s long-running answer to James Brown may be pushing 50, but he still has enough hoots and hollers left in him to power several upstart rock ‘n’ roll bands and maybe even a few freight trains, too, judging from his fondness for railroad songs he exhibited at Club Helsinki on Saturday night in his show with his country-roots trio, the Mercy Brothers.

But when he’s with the Mercy Brothers, Whitfield turns back the clock on the r&b and goes digging in the roots cellar among blues, country and gospel tunes for songs that rely as much on storytelling for their power as for the raw, primal energy that has been fuelling his work with his better-known funk band, the Savages, all these years.

As heard on Saturday night, there’s plenty of energy in those roots, however, and a few of the numbers even gave Whitfield a chance to let loose with a few of his trademark Little Richard-style hoots and James Brown-style hollers. He even tossed in some very Louis Armstrong-like growling and scat-singing on a version of Tampa Red’s “I’ll Kill Your Soul, and some Al Green-ish gospel-soul testifying on a rendition of Tom Russell’s “Veteran’s Day,” an ode to a Vietnam veteran killed in action.

Backed by Michael Dinallo, who also writes many of the Mercy Brothers’ songs, on acoustic guitar, and Steve Sadler on steel guitar, Whitfield connected the dots between country and blues, Tex-Mex and rockabilly. His energetic performance brought rock ‘n’ roll energy to what is often presented as a traditional folk music, but just as important he gave the lie to the artificial distinction between so much country and blues. He’s not the first to do so – the late Ray Charles, certainly, tried to end musical segregation over 40 years ago with his landmark “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” album, but it still takes the likes of a Whitfield to illustrate the point every once in a while in the flesh.

On originals including “New Year’s Blues,” “Misery Train” and “Mornin’ Blues” and on Dave Alvin’s “Haley’s Comet,” Whitfield stretched his voice while Dinallo played percussive riffs and melodic leads answered by Sadler’s soulful lines. “Veteran’s Day” had a hint of a mariachi or doo-wop lilt, and “Haley’s Comet,” a tribute to rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Bill Haley, hinted at Tex-Mex sonorities. The two instrumentalists together put out a huge sound worthy of twice their number of musicians, and Whitfield was equally boisterous, entertaining a small crowd with enthusiasm usually reserved only for a packed house.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 22, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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