Prodigal Soul; A Little Set by Big Black | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Prodigal Soul; A Little Set by Big Black 

After breaking their old-school R & B overseas, the south-side duo Brown's Bag are bringing it back home.

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Prodigal Soul

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 70s-style 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."

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."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Gail Butensky.

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