Features, Print May 9, 2019

Southern Avenue: Keep On

by Dan England

Ori Naftaly grappled with his record label, Concord Records, over his band Southern Avenue’s upcoming album, Keep On, out May 10. Fortunately for us, they both came out on top.

This is Naftaly’s second album with a label, having released music from his former Ori Naftaly Band by himself. He formed that band because no one else wanted to make the kind of blues he wanted to create in Israel, where he grew up. When he relocated to Memphis, he eventually met Tierinii Jackson, the bombastic vocalist who learned how to sing in church, and her sister Tikyra, a drummer and singer, who helped him form Southern Avenue in 2015.

Memphis veteran Jeremy Powell on keys, Gage Markey on bass and a host of killer horn players complete the band. They’ve toured Colorado many times, and Ori’s been a staple of the Greeley Blues Jam and the scene that cropped up as a result. Ori can play, as many blues guitarists who get discovered can, but he’s not the focus, and Ori likes it that way, he said in a phone interview.

“I never wanted to have my own band growing up in Israel,” he said. “Southern Avenue is what I was dreaming about. Everybody contributes and creates. That’s what I wanted.”

And yet, Ori spoke with candor about his desire for more solos and more instrumental parts on the upcoming record, even while admitting he’s grateful for the compromises the label and the band made together. Concord envisioned a more radio-friendly record, Ori said, putting the Jackson sisters out front, with fewer long, instrumental passages. Ori and his band can surely rip, but it was an amicable and great decision: Jackson’s a big reason why the band meets Ori’s goal to sound “timeless.”

“I want people to listen to this in 2040 and think we sound as relevant as we do honoring the music that we love from back in the day,” Ori said. “I don’t want to sound like an era.”

Ori and the band brought a strong stance to conversations with the label too. They fought for the blues, he said, and most of the time, they got them on this record. Tracks such as “We’re Not So Different,” “Tea I Sip” and “We’re Gonna Make It” all have a much bluesier edge than anything on the band’s first album, from the thundering drums to the baritone sax anchoring the horns to Ori’s brief but sublime snippets of guitar. “Tea l Sip,” for instance, would not have been on the last record due to the dirty guitar lick beginning, the boom of ‘loping-horse’ bass, Jackson’s wail and a prominent, deep-throated saxophone.

Ori calls himself a blues guy. He wants his band to have the classic soul sound so prominent on this record, the kind Motown birthed in the 1960s, as its foundation. He wants the contemporary feel that Jackson gives and the flourishes that come with an extra pop hook or two.

“But we put our foot down,” Ori said. “The blues is not the most popular thing ever, so it can be hard to convince those who gave us the money (the label) to put it in (the record). We aren’t trying to be a blues band, but we want the blues songs that we write to be on the album.”

Sometimes it pays to stick to your guns, as the blues save the album from being too much of a pop record, a sound that would be a waste of the prodigious talent Ori has collected and recorded. There’s some sweet, greasy fat on the bone, for sure, but most of it is rare red meat, the kind that could be played in any blues hall in the country.

Southern Avenue shows what it can do live, Ori promised, and we’re sure to find out this summer, when the band returns Colorado as it has many times recently. But here’s to more bluesy battles in Southern Avenue’s future, while we enjoy a front-row seat to the sweaty result through our speakers.