Barrence Whitfield and the Savages
Rock ‘n’ Roll, Baby!
Barrence Whitfield and the Savages Keep It Primal
Barrence Whitfield is in his element.
Well, in the general sense, at least. The soul screamer and tireless performer, frontman for the newly reconstituted Boston powerhouse Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, is likely only truly in his own personal nirvana in the midst of one of the band’s notoriously adrenalized, sweat-drenched shows.
But when I ring him up one recent afternoon, he’s still surrounded by his one true passion: music. Only in this case, it’s the recorded variety, and his shirt’s not completely soaked. He takes my call while filing away vinyl at The Record Exchange, the Salem, Massachusetts music retailer where he’s worked off and on since 1991.
“I’m still here in my habitat. Or as I say, I’m in the record cave,” he tells me. “I’m looking at tons of records and CDs and putting out more stuff, so yeah, it’s a good venue to talk about music in. Instead of some alleyway.”
It’s gotta be satisfying, then, for 60-year-old Whitfield to have two different vantage points from which to witness the enthusiastic response to the (more or less) original Savages’ return after so many years – the throngs of fans, both old and new, packing clubs on their tour stops, and customers purchasing copies of the band’s three post-reformation albums, the two most recent of which having been issued by Chicago-based Bloodshot Records.
“We had a European label, but we really needed an American label if we were gonna do some damage touring in the States,” Whitfield explains. “Someone suggested that they thought Bloodshot Records would be perfect. I gave [Bloodshot’s] Nan [Warshaw] a call, and come to find out, [label co-owner] Rob [Miller] went to school here in Massachusetts and used to come and see us back in the day! And he flipped out. He said, ‘A chance to get Barrence Whitfield and the Savages? Are you kidding? Let’s do it!’”
The band’s latest album, Under the Savage Sky, is, quite simply, a motherfucker. It’s one of only a handful of albums that came out last year I gave a shit about. A full-flared, garage-torching detonation of love and desperation, with power chords punching, saxophone blaring, drums like a firing squad and Barrence howling the words like a man who’s got nothing left to lose, it’s quite likely the most powerful album the Savages have ever recorded. Being that their first one came out in the faraway year of 1984, that’s more than a little astonishing.
I mean, it’s simple, soul-infused rock ‘n’ roll, nothing all that special on the surface. You’ve heard innumerable variations on this same formula. But the spirit they put into it is tremendously inspiring. It’s honest and it’s true, and the songs are great. You put the needle down on this thing, and within a minute or two go, “Oh, yeah… oh yeah! I’ve got to see these guys play a show!”
“When we got back together again and played in Spain, this young kid said, ‘You guys are great! You’re, like, primitive, from the Stone Age!’ But that’s the way we attack the music we play. It’s just like balls to the wall, nails to the wood rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not the kind of music that you stand there lookin’ at your cell phone. People pay attention to the music, they sweat, they yell, they scream,” Whitfield testifies. “I mean, when we played back in the ‘80s, man, there were times we used to get off the stage that my pants were ripped to shreds, or [guitarist] Peter [Greenberg]’s wrists would be bloody, and the bass player would be all bloody from the lip down. There you go – we were savages. Savage music. I mean, we wear it well, let’s put it that way. We still wear it well.”
A lifelong music fan, Whitfield (born Barry White, but he changed it so as not to be confused with the other one) is just old enough to have been able to experience and appreciate rock, soul and R&B while both he and they were still young.
“I got to hear some of that stuff through listening to radio, at my house, all the great soul and R&B stuff, a lot of rock ‘n’ roll. I had family that listened to that stuff,” he says, adding that he was raised down in Brunswick, Georgia, where his family was from. “That was when radio was radio, you could hear anything you want. Today, radio’s not like that, unfortunately. Everybody’s gone to blogs, or Spotify, stuff that has no heart. When I was growing up, you could hear anything from Frank Sinatra to James Brown to The Beatles to Mason Williams doing ‘Classical Gas,’ to Ray Barretto playing ‘El Watusi,’ to Richard Harris doing ‘MacArthur Park,’ You got to hear everything.”
Believe it or not, Barrence actually went through a prog phase in the ’70s, and is unabashedly happy to have seen a lot of those bands at the time. One thing he wasn’t particularly happy about, however, was having to front a New Jersey disco band, way before moving to Boston and getting the Savages going.
“I had to wear bell-bottoms and be all flyed-up. I did it because…the band was very popular, and wanted a singer, and I could pull some of that stuff off easy. But when I went to these places, I said, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ It was all women jiggly-jiggly-jiggly, and all the guys being posers, trying to be like that guy from Saturday Night Fever. I don’t like those days. That didn’t last very long.”
Once in Boston, Whitfield met the aforementioned Peter Greenberg, who had played guitar with DMZ and the Lyres, while both were working at (naturally) the same record store.
“Oh, yeah, a place called Nuggets in Boston,” Whitfield recalls. “As a matter of fact, we got fired from that same record store, too!”
But once Greenberg heard Barrence sing, he wanted him in the new band he was forming with bassist Phil Lenker and drummer Howard Ferguson, both also onetime Lyres. With sax honker Steve Lagrega (another Nuggets ex-employee!) on board, Barrence Whitfield and the Savages were born, bringing an unhinged garage/punk-edged rawness to their update of early R&R and R&B styles.
That lineup released two absolutely killer albums in ’84 and ’85 before disbanding, with Whitfield successfully carrying on, touring and releasing albums with a new version of the group. By the ‘90s, he was recording with country singer/songwriter Tom Russell and playing with a New Hampshire-based jump blues and rockabilly combo called The Movers. And while the Savages ceased to be an ongoing entity, he’d still fly overseas and perform, Chuck Berry-style, with various backing groups across Europe.
What inevitably led to the band’s revival began six years ago when UK-based Ace Records reissued Barrence Whitfield and the Savages’ self-titled debut album from 1984, expanded with numerous previously unreleased outtakes, early recordings and live tracks.
“I got a call from Peter about all the particulars about royalties and stuff,” says Whitfield. “And he was getting his guitar licks back, ‘cuz he hadn’t played guitar in a long time either. So he was playing with a local band out in New Mexico. I said, ‘You know, if you ever need me on vocals, or to do some stuff for you, I’d love to fly out and hang out with you again.’ And then he called me back two weeks later and said, ‘I got some gigs – you wanna come on out?’ And he also called Phil. So we flew out there and really started doing it a little bit again. It was still kinda rough, but we sat down in his house and said, ‘Listen, do you think we can do it again?’ I said, ‘Hey, we’re still young at heart. If we find a few guys we can plug in the sax and the drums, I think we could pull it off again.’ And I think Peter was hungry to produce again, because he stopped playing a real long time ago.”
With new recruits Andy Jody (drums) and Tom Quartulli (sax) completing the lineup, the Savages have been knocking ‘em silly all across the States and in Europe, at everything from club gigs to festivals. By all means a full grown man, obviously older now but still bursting with seemingly boundless energy, enthusiasm and passion, Barrence is actually singing better than ever to my ears, even if he admits to toning down his onstage antics by half a notch.
“Well, you know, I can’t leap from the stage like Superman from a building. I’ve kind of gotten a little older for that. But you don’t need to when you’re giving out energy with your singing and with everything else that goes with our music. You know, acrobatics are not what we do like we used to. But you never know what I’ll get the urge to do. Sometimes I am possessed. But the possession is all about the music, it’s all about enjoying what you do, and having fun with the people that see you. It’s something you don’t lose. And I think these days, people want to be entertained. The ones that do go out and see music wanna be entertained. I don’t think they come there to watch videos.”
Photo by Drew Reynolds.