Slow-vannah was transformed into Soul-vannah for a few hours when Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings landed at the Trustees Theater for the first sold-out show of the Savannah Music Festival.
The 11-member band fronted by Jones, an Augusta native and disciple of the James Brown school of funky soul, raised the bar for showmanship for the rest of the festival, which kicked off earlier in the day.
The curtained opened on the Dap-Kings who immediately jumped into two instrumentals before welcoming both the band's back-up singers for solo numbers prior to the entrance of the evening's main attraction, Jones, a 55-year old former corrections officer turned soul music torchbearer.
Dap-King guitarist Binky Griptite tore a page out of Danny Ray's book on band introductions, using the notorious James Brown cape man's technique of simultaneously introducing the star, plus showing off the band's chops. As he listed off several of the band's recent hits, including "100 Days, 100 Nights," "The Game Gets Old" and others, the band would simultaneously jump into a quick riff from each tune and then drop into silence.
Pre-show questions from Dap-King devotees about whether dancing in the aisles would be allowed in the seated, more-formal setting of the Music Festival were immediately answered when Griptite told the audience to take their tickets out of their pockets, tear them up, get on their feet and dance.
When Jones took the stage, a crowd had gathered at the front, ready to get on the good foot - and although that might have blocked the view of some folks who remained seated in the first few rows, it was clear Jones and the band fed off the energy of the throngs of dancers. Over the course of the show, Jones pulled a handful of people out of the crowd to dance with her during songs.
The band started off with several tracks off the two most recent albums, I Learned the Hard Way and 100 Days, 100 Nights, and built off the slower, more lush arrangements of the newer material toward an explosion of the raw energy that was the signature of earlier albums like Naturally and Dap Dippin' with the Dap-Kings.
Jones became the puppet master, pulling heart strings and building a quick rapport with the audience. She would segue between songs with stories that set context for the tunes to come, including one exemplary occasion prior to "Mama Don't Like My Man." The rest of the band stepped off stage, leaving only Jones and Griptite, who laid down a gentle looping riff upon which Jones laid out a tale about introducing her man to her mama before kicking into tune itself.
When she wasn't pulling the crowd in with moody slow jams, Jones was flying around the stage with frenetic dance steps that would have exhausted performers half her age. Coming off a show the previous night in Tallahassee, Jones showed no signs of wear, and her energy pushed the mass of dancers at the front to shake what their mamas gave them just that much harder.
During an extended version of "My Man is a Mean Man," Jones took the time to introduce each of the band members, and giving each in turn the opportunity to show off their musical chops with a solo.
At least two members of the band were substitutes for regular members, necessitating that they play off a set list rather than improvising, but the music didn't suffer in the least. Jones pushed them as hard as she could and they rode along as tight as could be.
After leaving the stage to thunderous applause, the band returned several minutes later for a multi-song encore, and Griptite joked that the people who had remained seated for the duration of the show had left to sit somewhere else, leaving only the "party people."
The closing number had Jones and the band serve up a version of James Brown's "It's Man's Man's Man's World," the lyrics of which took on new levels meaning when alternately crooned and wailed by Jones.
As the final notes floated out over the audience, she invited everyone to stop by the merch table and then meet her outside, where she signed autographs, posed for photos and gave hugs. It was the perfect end to an incredible evening.