Knoxville's historic Bijou Theatre transformed into a revival Wednesday night, with St. Paul and the Broken Bones' frontman Paul Janeway in the pulpit.
The band, made up of Janeway and six others – including a horn section – brought their emotionally-charged soul and gospel-influenced tunes to a room originally filled with seated older adults. Two songs in, however, the crowd was on its feet, cheering with arms raised, looking like a Sunday morning in an exuberant 1950s church.
And Janeway enthusiastically conducts his congregation, his chubby baby face disguising the fact that the boy has some soul. His vocals are deliciously bluesy, evoking immediate shivers and nostalgic memories of a time when the only kinds of music worth listening to were the likes of James Brown, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke – all of which Janeway counts as influences, according to the band's website.
The first incredible thing about St. Paul and the Broken Bones is how new the group is to this, having just released the band's debut full-length album, "Half the City," Feb. 18. And yet each track highlights Janeway's supreme vocal ability and the band's deep, raw sound.
"Half the City" was produced by Alabama Shakes' keyboardist Ben Tanner, and the similarities between the two groups do not go unnoticed. Both the Shakes and St. Paul are vocally-driven by outstanding leads with a jazz-age fullness and range that listens as if you're looking at a black-and-white photograph.
This brand of rock united the Bijou's audience, drawing together several generations – baby boomers, X and Y – that give into their urge to look back sentimentally on a time they only experienced through music and their parents' or grandparents' memories. The sentiment was heightened by St. Paul's covers of Brown's "Try a Little Tenderness" and Tom Waits' "Make it Rain."
In the context of all of this is Janeway, who moves smoothly across the stage, jumping off of it at times to get closer to the crowd, even going on his knees during a particularly emotive note carried off flawlessly by his textured tone. He pauses only to chug from a water bottle or dab his face with a large orange towel, signs of his overflowing passion and feeling for the words he sings.
He throws down words with ferocity, a rawness that's rough spots just make the experience even better, make the audience want to groan with satisfaction – and some do. The audience is incapable of stillness, yet they do not dance – rather, they sigh and nod and slump their bodies a little with each beat and bass line, as though the soul is in them, too. If only it can just be released.
"I'm going to take you to church for a second," Janeway said. "We might just play all damn night."
And we believe him.