Less than two months I’d never heard of Neal Francis (not to be confused with Neil Frances, a duo with no one named Neil and who oddly enough played town just two days before) and now I’ve seen him play twice; count me among the converted. I fought off jet lag just long enough to see a few songs from his late night set at Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky festival held in Mexico about a month ago, and came back hungry for a full dose.
Francis mans the electric keyboards and has surrounded himself with a devastatingly precise band. And not only can they all play, they all sing as well. I got touches of Leon Russell and Allan Toussaint from my previous exposure, but the obvious influence I missed was how big The Meters play into his particular sound. Collin O’Brien in particular has that coveted balance of playing really precisely but with enough swing and looseness to make the songs really move; I’d be shocked if Zigaboo Modeliste wasn’t one of his favorite drummers.
But it’s not just a slavish blueprint to some of Nawlins’ finest; Frances finds his footing in penning tight songs that are catchy, and live he and his band will let the song flow and ebb in a very natural way. Long call and response vamps are equally at home with earworms like “Can’t Stop The Rain” or “Changes Pt 1 & 2,” as Francis made his way from standing at his Hohner clavinet (I had no idea a keyboard could have a whammy bar) or sitting down at the electric piano. Dressed like he just stepped off the set of Almost Famous, Francis’ all-night smile was infectious and had the venue movin’ and groovin’. Excellent night out, and I’ll bet he’s at a bigger venue next time through town.
Opener Emily Wolfe hails from Texas, a state with no lack of electric blues history. She’s got a trio of self-released records out and played a competent set that didn’t wow me but had its moments.