Carleen is coming! (and all that gospel)

By Phil Johnson, Senior Programme Producer

You can keep Adele and even Beyonce. When it comes to female vocalists, I’ll settle quite happily for Carleen Anderson, along with Aretha Franklin in her pomp. But Aretha, as you may have heard, has announced her retirement from live performance and is therefore very unlikely to be appearing at St George’s at any foreseeable point. Carleen, meanwhile, is actually coming here, on Friday May 19th, in a special launch concert for the new River Town festival in July (the old Bristol Americana Weekend as was, our collaboration with Bristol Music Trust and Colston Hall).

It’s an event worth banging the drum about because Carleen Anderson – who is a composer, writer/lyricist, musician and proper all-round artist as well as a singer – has a voice that, once heard, can never be forgotten. I can pinpoint exactly where I was when I first encountered it: a basement flat in Montpelier in late 1990, listening to the opening batch of releases on Gilles Peterson’s newly formed Talkin’ Loud label, whose inaugural twelve inch singles included ‘Get Yourself Together’ by The Young Disciples, the group Carleen joined on her arrival in England from California.

I think the very first version of the tune I heard was an instrumental, with just the basic groove and no vocal, so maybe I played the B-side before the A, or possibly the instrumental 12” version came out first. Whatever, when I did hear the vocal THAT voice blew me away, as did the deliciously literary self-penned lyrics it was singing. “Only you can change this life”, Carleen sings, ”From one that’s drab and ordinary, so dull and sedentary.” What a rhyme, what pipes!  Listen to it here.

The follow-up single, with equally wise, poetic and socially conscious lyrics, ‘Apparently Nothin’, made it into the charts (no 13) and onto TOTP, as seen here, while the acclaimed debut album ‘Road to Freedom’ seemed to signal a bright future before the group broke up and Carleen started her solo career.

What Carleen did next can be gleaned from her website and numerous youtube clips (check the incredible duet from 2001 with another of my soul heroes, Leon Ware, here) plus her versions of classic pop songs like ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ and ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, here.

The back-story before she came to the UK will probably form at least part of her coming St George’s show, Cage Street Memorial, a multi-dimensional project that also involves a book and a theatrical presentation, and which has its roots in her father and grandfather’s experiences as Pentecostal preachers, and the family’s long history in Texas and Mississippi.

I’m guessing that because of its subject matter and inspirations,  Cage Street Memorial will contain many echoes of gospel music, which in the authentically churchy setting of St George’s should feel right at home. For Carleen Anderson’s exquisite vocal personality – the contained power of her voice coupled with a transcendent ability to soar to the highest of heights – and the very precise, poetic and linguistically alert lyrics she writes for it, inevitably recalls the context of classic African-American gospel music, where ornamental vocal flourishes are grounded in the stately diction of the King James bible.

You can see this clearly in the following clip of the great Barrett Sisters, taken from a wonderful film, ‘Say Amen Somebody’, documenting a concert in the honour of the venerable Gospel composer Thomas Dorsey (blues man Georgia Tom as was) – click here to watch.  If you look at the hall where they are singing and squint your eyes a bit, you could almost imagine it was St George’s, where on May 19th Carleen Anderson will surely have us rocking in the aisles and crying like babies, possibly both at the same time.

Finally, we can’t end without offering the chance to hear what is generally regarded as the funkiest record ever made, ‘I Know You Got Soul’ by Carleen’s stepdad. Bobby Byrd. Say Yeah!

Carleen Anderson – Cage Street Memorial

Friday 19 May, 8pm
£22, £20, £5 Students/U18s (limited availability) (plus fees)