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St. Paul & the Broken Bones on old-school soul, playing with Rolling Stones

Eight-piece band St. Paul & the Broken Bones from Birmingham, Ala., is part of a resurgence of Southern soul/gospel music. They perform Tuesday night at Crossroads KC.
Eight-piece band St. Paul & the Broken Bones from Birmingham, Ala., is part of a resurgence of Southern soul/gospel music. They perform Tuesday night at Crossroads KC.

St. Paul & the Broken Bones started out as an informal collaboration between Paul Janeway and Jesse Phillips. Neither expected anything long-term to grow from it.

The two had met years earlier in Birmingham, Ala., while in an alternative-blues band called the Secret Dangers.

“I was asked to substitute in that band initially,” Phillips said. “Paul was a singer and that’s how I got acquainted with him. I became a full-time player in that band, and Paul and I discovered we had similar tastes musically.”

The Secret Dangers eventually “burned itself out,” Phillips said, but he and Janeway decided to keep things going. Both had other careers in mind.

“At that time, Paul was in accounting school and looking forward to a long, stable career,” said Phillips, who graduated with an education degree from Loyola University in New Orleans. “But we started going into the studio and threw some stuff at the walls to see what stuck.”

They would eventually form a band, now an eight-piece, and in 2013 release two EPs. In 2014, they released “Half the City,” the band’s first full-length. In September, they released their second full-length, “Sea of Noise.”

Tuesday night, St. Paul and the Broken Bones perform at Crossroads KC. Phillips, the band’s bassist, recently talked to The Star about the band’s unexpected rise in popularity, its part in the ever-growing retro/Southern soul movement and what it was like opening for the Rolling Stones twice.

Q: When did momentum for this band really start to pick up?

A: In 2012, we emerged from the studio with a four-song EP and kind of a band attached to it and a little bit of buzz surrounding it. We didn’t expect much of it, of course, but one thing led to another, and we got a recording contract with a label out of Florence (Ala.) and we started adding more members to the band, and then we signed up with a booking agency to sign up for more shows and we got management, and before you knew it, we were a fully functioning band.

Q: How did you settle on this sound?

A: When we started creating the project that eventually became St. Paul & the Broken Bones, I think the idea was to get Paul’s voice and phrasing and tendencies into their most natural setting, which was this deep-soul, Southern, old-school gospel-inflected vibe. It’s probably what we should have been doing all along. It’s where Paul is at home and most comfortable.

Paul was pretty adamant about adding a horn section to further push it in that direction. The keyboard player we have now, Al Gamble, came in just to do overdubs when we were making the first record and as soon as we heard him, we decided we wanted him to be in the band.

Before we knew it, we had something that looked suspiciously like Booker T & the MGs backed by the Memphis Horns, at least a more ramshackle version of that.

Q: Is everyone from Alabama?

A: I grew up in British Columbia and ended up in the South via going to college in New Orleans, Loyola University. The rest of the band is from the Florence/Muscle Shoals/Sheffield area or around Birmingham.

Q: How has that region influenced the band and its sound?

A: There’s a very proud musical tradition in Alabama, whether you’re talking about gospel or soul or country. Hank Williams is an Alabama native, about as Alabama as it gets. There’s Wilson Pickett and all the stuff that came out of Muscle Shoals — a bunch of those players were from Florence.

There’s a proud tradition of earthy, roots-oriented authentic music in Alabama. For a while Muscle Shoals was the recording capital of the world in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Q: How is the music scene now?

A: I think for the last several years, it has operated more in the underground because there hasn’t been the infrastructure to support it like you have in bigger cities like Atlanta or New York or Nashville.

But now there are people like the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell, the Alabama Shakes, Anderson East and there are lesser-known bands and songwriters that are regionally well-known that are on par with any in the industry.

For a long time they went unnoticed, especially pre-internet era. I guess people felt like they had to move somewhere else to really have a shot. But the playing field has been leveled somewhat because of the power of YouTube and social media. You don’t have to move to New York or Nashville to get noticed and find avenues to disseminate your music.

Q: Your band is part of a resurgence in old-school soul. How aware are you of that movement and will it influence future recordings?

A: We have noticed that. It feels like there’s been a rise in kind of earthier, more soulful bands the past several years, and bands that rely on the old-school R&B feel with horn sections.

I do think we kind of have an eye on our third record later this year, and I think we’ll probably go in our own direction and let our muse lead us rather than stringently adhere to any kind of tenets of this movement.

Q: Why do you suppose this sound is becoming popular again?

A: I think people really respond to those sounds and feelings because it is the antithesis of the over-produced very glossy, distant, ice-cold stuff that’s popular on the other end of the spectrum, stuff that’s very digital and processed. So you’ve got this trend that’s favoring more real and organic and battered-and-bruised. There are similarities to a lot of those bands in the approach and feel and vibe, like, “Go for it and let it all hang out.”

Q: What were the turning points for the band?

A: There have been a couple of “how did we get here” moments, especially early on. The first time you play on TV is a pretty big deal.

The first time people show up to a record signing, which happened when we put out our first record. We did a signing in Tuscaloosa the day it came out and there was a line out the door.

One of the big moments was getting a call to open for the Stones a couple of times in the summer of 2015. That’s another level of something entirely, especially when you look at who’s done it in the past.

Q: How did they find you?

A: I think it had to do with us playing our Coachella show, which would have been April 2015. Some folks involved with booking the Stones tour saw us play and thought it might be a decent fit, so they sent something on to the band and management and apparently they liked it.

The first one was in Atlanta in a college football stadium. The second one was in Buffalo in the Bills stadium.

Q: What were those shows like?

A: It’s a surreal day. We were playing in Atlanta, which isn’t far from home so we were in our tour van — we hadn’t even switched over to a bus full time yet — so we putter up to this stadium in a white, 15-passenger band van and we pull up to the security checkpoint and we get the “Uh, can we help you? What are you doing?” sort of thing.

And we go, “We actually are supposed to be playing here this evening.”

And we eventually got in and the musical director was out there rehearsing the band, then they call out the four principals, Charlie, Keith, Mick and Ronnie, come out and join the sound check. We weren’t super close to them, but it was still really, really cool.

Q: Did you get to meet them?

A: We got to meet them at the second show, in Buffalo. It was like meeting the president or the queen of England: A security team came down and cleared everything out. Cellphones were not permitted. They had an official photographer there. It was quite the scene.

We had a few minutes with them and got to chat a little bit. They were really complimentary and very nice. Keith seemed a little shy. We were like, “You’re Keith Richards, man. What do we have to say to you?”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain


St. Paul & the Broken Bones perform Tuesday night at Crossroads KC. JD McPherson opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $21.50 to $76.50.