Walk around the city and it’s obvious Boston’s average age leans quite young. According to a census as recent as last year, 33.2 percent of the population is 25 to 44 years old. The next closest age range, 19 and under, comes in second place with 21.9 percent. It’s a city that draws younger people in each year, likely because of the universities and colleges—but it then floods other cultural stamps, like the city’s music scene. On the surface, that can seem like a good thing. Consider what the elder demographics offer, though, and it’s very clear not.
To be honest, it’s hard to find bands in Boston that veer older than those demographics. Even then, finding bands comprised of people in their late 30s or early 40s feels virtually impossible. The music scene favors Berklee grads and art school dropouts who are committed to pursuing their bands. But nestled within Boston’s music community is Barrence Whitfield, a legend all his own who will never market himself as such. After all, he’s not trying to make it to the big leagues. He just wants to sing the blues from the heyday of rock ’n’ roll.
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. At that time, he was working at famed record store Nuggets in Kenmore Square. 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 record 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.
That was over 30 years ago. It’s 2017, and Whitfield is still slaying. Last October, Audiotree, a popular video performance site that invites bands in to perform in their studio and then uploads the sessions for viewers to discover new music, invited him and his band into the studio to perform. It’s 32 minutes of contagious joy. You can’t help but watch Whitfield stretch his voice, and after you do some reading, his origin story explains why his voice still reigns supreme decades since he began using it professionally.
Whitfield grew up in New Jersey where he sang in a gospel choir. While that explains the vocal range, it’s his time in a funk band that explains the bigger groove beneath his tone. After he enrolled in Boston University in 1977, he stuck around Boston to see what it had to offer him, and from then on he became a part of Boston’s music scene. He’s released a steady stream of albums over the years—13 records, to be exact—but they were marred by a few being issued in France and a 16-year gap between 1995’s Ritual of the Savages and 2011’s Savage Kings. His latest release, 2015’s Under the Savage Sky, landed on our Best Local Albums of 2015 list in DigBoston. His music bursts with liveliness that reaches back to his earliest days. And live, it feels even more rejuvenating.
Best of all, Whitfield’s live shows tend to get wild. It’s not unexpected to see him pour champagne on himself or bust out some moves. We would tell you what else is possible, but it’s best to see it yourself at the Sinclair this Friday instead. Barrence Whitfield and the Messengers, his new group, will perform with their spirits high. It’s best to grab a glass, raise it in the air, and dance until your spirits get just as high as theirs, celebrating the work of a musician who broke out of one of Boston’s most famous record stores to start recording some records of his own.
BARRENCE WHITFIELD AND THE MESSENGERS, DENNIS BRENNAN BAND, JESSE DEE. FRI 8.11. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/18+/$16. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM