For the past several years, Verse – a core band featuring guitarist Michael DiSanto, drummer Deshawn Jackson and bassist Zuri Appleby, with a rotating cast of guest musicians and singers – has been running a weekly series known as “Neo-Soul Tuesdays” at Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar in Allentown. One might reasonably accept these events as Ground Zero for what can only be called a burgeoning neo-soul movement in and around Buffalo.
Yeah, yeah, I know – Tuesday? It’s gotta be a dead night. A work night, a school night, a “I am still just starting to get over last weekend and I can’t go out again!” night. You’d figure Neo-Soul Tuesdays would be attended by the musicians, their significant others (maybe), the soundmen and folks who actually work at the club, and that’s about it. But you’d figure wrong.
Prior to last week, I hadn’t made it to the event since mid-summer, when the place was packed to the rafters. I assumed the Tuesday two days prior to Christmas would be a roomier event, to say the least. Man, was I ever wrong. DBGB was jamming.
Here’s the back story. Neo-Soul started to pop up with some consistency in music-obsessive circles in the late 1990s, when it was first ascribed to singers and bands marked by their adherence to the tenets of a new traditionalism regarding late ‘60s and ‘70s soul and R&B. With hip-hop, dance pop, and the last dregs of mostly horrible alt-metal clogging up the main arteries, Neo-Soul stood out because it was more rich, harmonically speaking, a touch classier and clearly informed by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. It also boasted a strong female presence, one that eschewed the unwritten law that women needed to be scantily clad and given to over-selling the song in order to be doing anything worthwhile.
Today, Neo-Soul has stretched to accommodate elements of jazz, funk and hip-hop, while retaining its emphasis on a hip, classy and sophisticated soulfulness – a tendency toward understatement in most cases, but certainly a capability to explode into improvisational areas that would make the most ardent jam-band fan nod in grateful recognition of kindred spirits. It’s this contemporary area of Neo-Soul that Verse is given to exploring and expanding upon.
One thing that needs to be said right out front regarding guitarist DiSanto – he’s a different brand of guitar hero. Though he’s got chops to spare, and isn’t afraid to use them when the situation demands as much, what makes DiSanto such a remarkable player is his sense of the groove. The man can tell a worthwhile story with only a handful of notes or filthily funky repeated motif. He’s the heart of Verse, and when he is joined by the rhythm section of bassist Abbleby and drummer Jackson, you won’t find a more in-the-pocket ensemble in town.
Appleby was down and out with the flu last week, which gave me pause, so integral to the Verse sound is her playing. But Verse rebounded to include the contributions of keyboard-bassist Rod Bonner and keyboardist Brandon Sherman-Josey, who combined to bring a sharp techno edge to the proceedings – picture “Rockit”-era Herbie Hancock married to more organic soul tropes.
The Dec. 23 show was billed as a farewell party for singer Kyle McKenzie, who is leaving Buffalo to pursue new adventures. McKenzie owned the mic for the first set, and the packed house was with him all the way, as he brought elements of serious gospel music to the party, and melded them to a deep contemporary R&B strain. Later, singer Drea D’Nur would join in, and the music would stretch to accommodate Reggae’s elasticity. D’Nur is a virtuosic singer, but though she’s got chops galore, it’s her phrasing and the soulfulness apparent in her choice of notes that sets her apart from the crowd.
Verse continues to offer one of the deepest and most soulfully resonant live music experiences in the region. If you haven’t made it to a Neo-Soul Tuesday yet, you might want to check it out. But you’ll need to get there early in order to grab a table. The place fills up quickly. Bentlee Gavin Wright will be the featured vocalist on Dec. 30.Things kick off by 9 p.m.