In the airbrushed tiers of society that push shallowness and plasticity on us all—otherwise known as the mainstream—rhythm and blues is a polished genre that rarely strays from formula. I imagine most R&B songs that hit platinum these days are written in a cubicle somewhere, using templates and a computer program that generates hooks.
Because of this, it’s easy to forget R&B was once a vitally important musical form.
Soul Concepts, headed by Indio (formerly of now-defunct Lawa), seeks to rekindle that original spark. This new configuration of long-time Maui musicians, Indio says, goes for a sound that’s “old school, innovative, dirty.”
Think the kind of sound you get from some back alley Detroit studio whose sound engineer traded you two hours of recording time for a $9 gallon of Rossi.
Indio’s analogy: Kenny G. versus Miles Davis.
“It’s not that commercial sound that’s really refined,” Indio says.
The band consists of six members: Indio on guitar and lead vocals; Najona Ichimaru on backup vocals; Gene Arjell on keyboards; Makana Arjell on drums; Lenny Castellano on bass; and Paul Bunuan on sax.
Though still in the larval stage (they’ve been jamming for roughly four months), band members have been playing together in some configuration or another for years. Indio started jamming with Castellano a decade ago, and he works with Ichimaru in Ulalena. (Indio is the show’s musical director.)
The band has been playing at various Maui venues, including a show this coming Saturday at Casanova in Makawao.
Their repertoire consists mostly of tunes that Indio and Gibran Vicente (who both operate a production company that shares its name with the band) penned, tunes with a sound that blends “the different offshoots of soul.”
“We all have an affinity for that kind of music,” Indio says. “It’s an outlet for us to develop our sound and create an identity…to feed our soul.”
Plus, he says, it gets people to make use of the dance floor.
While their sets consist mostly of original music, they do slip in some covers here and there. But they’re not the standards—the same tunes you hear every time you flip your dial to a commercial radio station, watch a romantic comedy trailer, or suck down mai-tais at a beach bar in St. Pete Beach, Florida.
Soul Concepts shies away from the obvious with covers like Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good” and “She’s Always in My Hair” by Prince. (Though they do give the great Stevie Wonder a nod by way of the ever-popular “Superstition.”)
Playing the standards you’ll hear anywhere, the titles that drunk tourists yell out because they fear the unfamiliar, is common. But it can also make the music into an afterthought. “You become like wallpaper,” Indio says.
The demand for ultra-familiar covers is certainly a force to be reckoned with. (Allow me to gratuitously rant: On a recent trip to Chicago, my friend Kate Gardiner and I ventured out to a blues bar on Halsted. We paid 10 bucks each to see a cluster of obviously seasoned bluesmen rattle off a set that diverged little from what you’d hear on a classic rock station, except maybe for “Sweet Home Chicago.” Not that I don’t think “Black Magic Woman” is a decent song, but if I’m at a blues bar in Chicago, I want Chicago blues. At least give me “Mannish Boy.” Anyway.)
But covers or not, Indio says he feels extremely fortunate to be able to play music for a living, and to work with musicians of such high caliber.
“With this group of musicians we all have a reputation in the community,” he says. “They’re probably as good as it gets when it comes to musicianship.”
Considering the pitfalls of being in a band—the egos, the creative differences, the artistic compromises that too often take place—it’s refreshing to see a local musical act that can generate some tasty, gritty music while retaining its originality and vision. MTW