By Pat Gunther
St. Paul & The Broken Bones are set to embark on a west coast tour in the coming weeks, but they made a stop at the Varsity Theatre on a chilly Thursday night in February. The packed house roared as Paul Janeway and his cast of talented musicians took the stage, and opened with a funky rock number jam packed with that Birmingham soul that fans have come to know and love since the group’s inception in 2011.
Led by Browan Lollar’s John Mayer-like guitar work and a horn section comprised of Alan Branstetter on Trumpet and Ben Griner on Trombone and Tuba, St. Paul and The Broken Bones create a sound that is a mixture of Sam Cooke, NOLA big band jazz and gritty church choir gospels that is absolutely irresistible to anyone within earshot. About 15 minutes through the set, when the group finally got into the swing of things, grandmas and grandpas could be found shaking their asses in the presence of college kids creating an unexpected union of funk and fun.
As the crowd continued to feed off of St. Paul’s energy and enthusiasm, the performance wowed at every twist and turn along the way. Janeway’s voice, a combination of Sam Cooke and Mayer Hawthorne, perfectly complements the Blues Brother’s energy of Al Gamble on the keys and the backbone of the 7-piece Jesse Phillips on the bass guitar. Throughout the whole set, you couldn’t help but think of Otis Day and The Knights in the basement of the Animal House; pure, unadulterated fun.
“Broken Bones and Pocket Stones”, the standout track of the evening, was reminiscent of collaboration between the Alabama Shakes and the ghosts of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, bringing the crowd to the apex of their energy. Their sound, an amalgamation of influences, is one of the more unique Southern sounds I’ve heard grace the Varsity Stage. With a mix of adept covers (Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” has never sounded so sexy) and spine-tingling, bottom-shaking original music, St. Paul and The Broken Bones are one of the premier acts to come out of Dixieland in the past five years.
Real southern rock influences (.38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd, namely) manifest themselves in the form of shredding, wailing guitar chords and pulsating drum kicks while the horn section seductively leads Janeway’s vocals along a cochlear journey that is sure to please. Though the crowd’s energy faltered by midnight, toward the end of the show, Paul and company still obliged them with a four song encore that was the perfect cap to a night of bourbon drenched, springtime soul. St. Paul and The Broken Bones, despite battling sickness and road weariness, were one of the best acts I’ve seen play the Varsity in quite some time.