Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Cream: blues rock encompasses a lot of offshoots, but what every artist in the genre possesses is an underlying feeling for how the music drives them. It comes through them with power, out through their voice, their guitar, their soul at large. It was the genre of an era from the ’60s on through to decades that followed. Oftentimes, it feels like blues rock faded with those stars. But if you look closely, it’s still thriving in Massachusetts, and Boston has Barrence Whitfield to thank for that.
The 62-year-old vocalist sings a combination of American soul, R&B, and rock, the three of which combined in the 1980s for his band Barrence Whitfield & the Savages. He came straight out of Nuggets record store ready to make music. Colleague and guitarist Peter Greenberg formed an instrumental rock band with bassist Phil Lenker and drummer Howie Ferguson. Once Whitfield began singing impromptu around the store, they realized not only what a remarkable talent he had but what a crucial part his voice was to the band. Charged with a love of ’60s R&B and crunch blues punk, the band found their stride, and a sea of fans followed.
Barrence Whitfield & the Savages made a name for themselves at their live shows. He’s famous for his enthusiasm, where a deep-lunged delivery brings a smile to everyone’s faces in the room. While growing up in New Jersey, he sang in his local gospel choir, which prepped him with the vocal range and timbre to make a rock club room shake. The band racked up seven Boston Music Awards during their tenure. They landed on international gigs and toured with Bo Diddley, Tina Turner, and George Thorogood. They were a blues rock tour de force, and the only power they wanted to instill in listeners was the power of all-natural positivity.
It wasn’t long before Whitfield and the rest of the band realized they wanted to start focusing on their personal lives. They wanted to settle down, to work on their family lives, to pursue more traditional careers. While most continued to play music privately, if not professionally, they decided to put the band on the backburner. It wasn’t until 2010 that they talked about reuniting. In 2011, they released Savage Kings, followed by Dig Thy Savage Soul and then Under the Savage Sky, the latter of which landed on our Best Local Albums of 2015 list. Though it’s hard to believe, the band was back with just as much vigor as their early days.
“We got a youth injection in our bodies and had to get up there to do it again,” says Whitfield. “Honestly, when we got back together, it was like we never even stopped. We hadn’t played together in 26 years or something, but you couldn’t tell. Sometimes you just want to prove to everybody that you can do it.”
He’s been proving it more and more as time goes on. The band’s new album, Soul Flowers of Titan, comes out this week and may be their loudest, heaviest album yet. From the walls of a dingy studio in Cincinnati, the group channels a cosmic energy into their wild, roots-tuned blues rock and lets it rip, spinning around in circles until they see a dazzling array of stars. As much energy as the album packs, it also revels in slow numbers, balancing the perfect blend of garage grumbling and guitar-laden dance numbers. According to Whitfield, the secret is making sure you treat the studio like a concert stage.
“The studio should be a live experience no matter what the technology is,” he says. “Instead of going in there one by one, putting your part on top of something else, and then exiting, we get in the studio and start playing as a group. It feels like a special type of togetherness where we become one. That’s how rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be: tell a good joke when it’s needed, have conversations with one another, then have a drink here, a drink there, and a drink anywhere else.” He laughs. Of course, this is Barrence Whitfield we’re talking about. His drink of choice is a cranberry and soda.
Creating a great album is a little bit easier when you have great subjects to focus on. On Soul Flowers of Titan, the band takes a closer look at an old friend: experimental jazz composer Sun Ra. Barrence Whitfield & the Savages opened for Sun Ra back in 1985. Less than a decade later, he passed away. It was the start of their live performance inspiration, and one that continues to inspire them on the album.
“We all had a mantra going through our heads by him on this record,” says Whitfield. “Playing in front of him and then watching him perform, being blown away by the band members, by him, and everything he was doing that night? It was everything I ever wanted to see and expected. He took us to new heights. As the years have gone by, we’ve always kept him in mind and talk about that show we played together.”
Ultimately, Barrence Whitfield couldn’t stop reliving his glory days and scaling new musical heights if he wanted to. The singer is just as rowdy in his 60s as he was back then, only now he’s got even more heart invested. He lives to share his energy through the concert stage. It’s his way to make sure fans get a moment to loosen up. He will ask for your name, show you dance moves, and then sing loudly in your face. On paper, it may sound overbearing. But in action, it’s the perfect combination of actions to bring a crowd to life.
“You have to include them in your party,” he explains. “When you throw a party, you don’t want people to sit around talking in one-on-one conversations wondering why they’re there, do you? They’re there to party! So if you show a caring heart to the people coming to see you, then let them into your space of emotion for a while. Make them forget about what they’ve gone through during the day. Be the band that helps them let their stress go. Instead, help them dig themselves and go crazy—because everyone deserves to have fun some days.”
BARRENCE WHITFIELD & THE SAVAGES, MR. AIRPLANE MAN. FRI 3.23. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS, 472 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/18+/$15. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM