It's an odd little spot, really, sitting between the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Highway 90 as it runs through Alpine, Texas. Not much bigger than a convenience store parking lot, the location is flat and sometimes dusty when summer hovers relentlessly over the Davis Mountains. The great freight trains rumbling through toward California often rattle the bones of people arriving to hear a night of music at a venue known as Railroad Blues.
When Soul Track Mind performs, the wooden dance floor gives off its own sweet vibration. While the notion of popularity for soul music in remote reaches of the Texas Trans-Pecos might seem improbable, the appearance of Soul Track Mind in the mountain town of Alpine is an event of some note. The cowboys and accountants, secretaries, cooks, mechanics, college students, and a few housewives are jumping shoulder-to-shoulder and toe-to-toe listening to the notes of seven white musicians who play well outside of ethnic expectations.
"I started this less than five years ago with an ad on Craigslist," said front man Donovan Keith. "And now I think we're the perfect example of the old school blue collar band where we work for everything we get, fight for respect everywhere we go, slowly work our way up from small clubs to bigger clubs, and earn every fan with the intensity of our live performance."
The coming together of a seven-piece soul band on an Internet ad site is not unremarkable but there is a certain level of amazement when their talent is gathered on stage. Soul Track Mind's performances are not just stylish trumpet or sax solos and blurry guitar riffs; they are a cultural exclamation point about American music. Only one band member has any African-American lineage but they were all drawn to the sounds of rhythm and blues with a touch of Motown and a bit of basic guidance from classic soul. They come out of a gritty melting pot that includes seasonings from Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, Billy Preston, the later works of Ray Charles, and more contemporary influences like the Black Keys and John Legend.
"But we don't emulate," said trumpet player Zach Buie. "We innovate. We love playing up the fact that we are one of very few bands making the effort to have a horn section, which really splits up our money. Lots of soul bands just fire their horn sections. Our music is original."
Those other soul stylists also do not over expend too much creativity on plaintive ballads and keyboards, which Soul Track Mind indulges in on their just released album. Keyboardist Sam Powell's touch is a perfect emotional bed for Keith's mournful voice on the cut "Remember Me." In fact, almost every track on the band's new album seems ideally arranged and mixed in a style that, after one listen, imprints the song on the memory in a way that it is impossible to imagine any other production of the music and lyrics.
Ballads are not what get the house bumpin', however, and the night STM played Railroad Blues the necks were probably too sweaty from swinging to be nuzzled during the slow dances. Donovan Keith's style as a singer and dance performer is under the deep and abiding influence of Sam Cooke. Keith's voice has the approximate range of Cooke's and also suggests sufficient time in down and out clubs to have some similarities in character and tonality. The closest association, however, is the unconstrained movement that travels through him from his band's music. There are no joints in his skeletal frame that are not committed to the song, and the crowd gets it on the dance floor.
There is one point of "emulation," however. Cooke was the first black musician of the modern era to closely tend to the business side of his art. All seven of the artists in Soul Track Mind understand they are in an industry that is still being transformed by the Internet and digital music. They build their lives and income around touring and playing gigs anywhere they can gather an audience. CDs, vinyl, and even digital downloads are loss leaders. Money comes from being onstage and filling the house. The show is the product, not the album. The album promotes the band's live appearances in the same fashion an author's book positions him as an expert speaker earning fees to give talks to organizations.
"We understand we are operating within a modern business frame," said guitarist Jonathon Zemek. "You aren't getting anywhere with album sales. Even if we sold a million, we'd still make more than a year's worth of living for each of us by traveling the country and doing shows. Instead of using the old school model of having a record label, everything is at our fingers now with technology. We are doing our best to predict a future sustainable model."
They have been sustaining themselves from the time Keith initially arrived in Austin and began searching for musicians to create a band. There might have also been a touch of destiny in Keith's discovery online of the great Earl Thomas of San Francisco. Thomas possesses the sound of a well-traveled voice and leads a large diverse band that blends musical roots from genres that include African pop to blues and American folk ballads. (Not many singers can get away with mentioning the Book of Revelation's "Seven Seals" in a lyric.) Donovan Keith was entranced by what he heard of Thomas online and sent the Californian a message that included a few vocal tracks. Keith just wanted to know if he had talent.
"I didn't hear anything for six months," he said. "But then I got a message back telling me that I did have talent but I needed to work on it. He told me I needed to move to a place where I could perform and play and get better. He really guided me every step of the way. I just saved up money and moved to Austin."
The song that had convinced the exquisitely talented Earl Thomas that Donovan Keith had promise was a karaoke track called "Little Red Heart," which appeared on the band's first album in 2010, "Ghost of Soul." Keith's initial recorded performance on the song cannot be equally compared with Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears" but the commonalities of what they accomplish with their vocals are undeniable. Young bands can lose lyrics in their music or they can rely too greatly on vocal talent but Soul Track Mind knows when to let the horns blow, the moment to free up Michael Mancuso's bass line to parry with Doug Leveton's percussions, and be led off by Buie's trumpet, George's sax, and Zemek's guitar.
Maybe the most encouraging characteristic of the early accomplishments of the band is that they do not come from a group of middle class young people that act entitled. When Keith arrived in Austin and assembled Soul Track Mind, they were happy to get a residence gig on the city's mostly black east side at a joint called T.C.'s Lounge. A style was developed in front of an audience that included University of Texas students, hippies and hipsters, older black neighborhood residents, and a few crackheads in off of the street. Ceilings swayed low toward the sinking dance floor and there was no ventilation to carry away the smell of untended and ancient rest rooms. There was, however, a big pot of whatever Baby Girl was cooking and patrons brought in their own bottles. Baby Girl, a petite black lady around 40, ran the door, cooked red beans and rice, and held down the house while Soul Track Mind found its sound.
"The locals were impressed by our ability to play soul music," Keith said. "And they treated us so great. We would not be anywhere without those crucial development years. I thought if, I of all people, this red headed white kid, could impress these older black folks with their own music then maybe we have something here. Because they're the kind of folks that will let you know if you're not doing it right."
They were doing it right. And still are. Even more encouraging, culturally, is that a band of white suburban kids playing and singing soul and R&B music is no longer that much of an anomaly. These assimilations do not turn heads the way they did when African American Charlie Pride built a career in country and western music, (though it's still likely we might be slightly distracted hearing Bobby Blue Bland sing a John Denver tune.) But with an average age of only 26, Soul Track Mind has both a musical maturity and a creative process that delivers new songs through a work ethic that involves every member of the band. Ideas are assembled into songs. A hook pops into someone's head. Two of them start jamming around the words. The bass player might add his line. A melody is grabbed out of the air. A recorder is hooked up for more vocals. They work and rework. Throw it out if it does not measure up to standards.
"Some of our songs happen fast," said Buie. "And others take months and months and are painfully slow. We all have a say and majority rules. Our feelings don't get hurt like they used to. We just can't take anything personally. We've got to create music and we want it to be great, entertaining music that moves people to dance."
Which is what happens. Over and over and over. Everywhere Soul Track Mind performs. Their new album has a mix of soulful and slow pieces that tear at the heart and bang ups of horns and strings that will not allow the listener to just observe and not dance. The band is set for a long summer tour of the U.S. and they will become a favorite in every town where they stop, even when they are playing by the railroad tracks out in the lonely stretches of the Chihuahuan Desert in Alpine, Texas.
And their music will move your little red heart.
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