Soulful music of struggle took the stage at La Sala Rossa with Naomi Shelton and The Gospel Queens performing for this year’s Pop Montreal festival. Authentic music to the core, Shelton’s ruff but beautiful vocals speak to an American musical history intimately bound to a century of struggle for civil rights and equality in the US, a story woven into many of America’s most profound cultural voices of the past century.
In the present context Shelton’s sound speaks to a well-crafted indie revival of soul music that contrasts recent decades of corporate-programmed digital sound. Flickers of the 21st century soul music resurgence are immediately apparent in the striking success of Daptone Records, Shelton’s record label based in Brooklyn, New York.
In recent years Daptone Records has released a select number of independent soul, funk and gospel records — including those by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings — becoming a boutique label that speaks to the broader revivalist musical movement and works tirelessly to translate the heights of American funk/soul music from generations past to the present day.
Back in Montreal, the raspy soul vocals of Naomi Shelton — backed by an amazing band led by the calm cool of blind keyboardist Cliff Driver — offered a hopeful musical message affirming an honest intent of heart in this contemporary soul music phenomenon. Shelton’s performance at Pop Montreal could be interpreted as a positive challenge to the cynical coding that shapes many indie artists today, as soul music works in the heart to affirm life and hopes for positive change, a message immediately apparent in Shelton’s powerful rendition of the soul music classic, A Change Is Gonna Come.
Shelton’s vocal justice speaks to the heart, building on a personal story that extends over decades for a singer who performed widely at the height of the soul era in the late 1960s, and in contrast has lived in recent years in New York City working as a cleaning lady. A warm musical embrace by Shelton and The Gospel Queens on a chilly fall night on Saint Laurent Boulevard points to a musical authenticity rooted in real life — a musical tone clearly not learned in books or in music school but on the gritty shores of life in America.
I’ll Take the Long Road, the third song into Shelton’s set, clearly spoke to the hearts of the packed concert hall. To the excited audience cheers Shelton delivered a soulful gospel from the stage on patience and perseverance. “I’ll take the long road, but surely, surely I will get there,” she sang, words reflecting on choices in our universal human experience but that can also speak directly to histories of struggle in the US.
The power in Shelton’s performance was the enormity of emotion packed into contemporary soul renditions that point to the power of music that is often times unexplainable in words but is profoundly riveting in the heart.
Stefan Christoff is a Montreal based community organizer, artist and writer who regularly contributes to Art Threat. Find him at twitter.com/spirodon.