Barrence Whitfield occupies stages like a man possessed, a relentless quality he’s also brought to the studio with his band, the Savages, on his last two albums: 2010’s Savage Kings and the new, mind-blowing Dig Thy Savage Soul.
In phone conversation, Whitfield’s manner is serenely reserved, as if he’s conserving energy for the impending thermonuclear explosion that characterizes every Savages gig. And yet Whitfield’s determination, conviction and passion are evident in every response he gives, with one particular stand-out.
“Peter Greenberg,” Whitfield says, touting the Savages’ original and latest versions. “There wouldn’t be a Barrence Whitfield without Peter Greenberg. I’m proud to have been able to lend my voice to it and to have Peter be the master guru of everything.”
Whitfield’s potent endorsement refers to Cincinnati’s own Peter Greenberg, the extraordinary Customs’ guitarist in the late ‘70s, who played with DMZ and The Lyres after his ‘80s relocation to Boston (where Whitfield still lives).
“A friend, who worked at the same record store that Peter and I got x-ed out of, suggested Peter was putting together a new band and that he was looking for a black singer who could scream and shout like Little Richard and I thought, ‘I can do that,’ “ Whitfield says. “I listened to enough of that stuff to know what it takes. We met at his house over a boiling pot of chili and listened to some great records. I don’t think I opened my mouth to sing before he said, ‘I think I got my guy.’ We hit it off quickly.”
The Savages became an undeniable sensation in Boston and along the East Coast with their incendiary live shows and releases (the eponymous 1984 debut album and 1985’s Dig Yourself). Perfect-storm proponents of a wickedly cool hybrid of ‘50s R&B, ‘60s Soul and Garage Rock, with a slightly snotty touch of ‘70s Punk, the Savages’ local legend grew exponentially, eventually accruing a U.K. fanbase which included rabid supporters Elvis Costello and Robert Plant.
As the Savages’ popularity peaked, Greenberg left music for the energy industry, a path he followed for 20 years (he currently lives in New Mexico).
Whitfield maintained his James Brown/Little Richard/Screamin’ Jay Hawkins performance style, assembling a new Savages lineup that was good but couldn’t approach the original’s unhinged glory.
In 2008, Shake It Records co-owner Darren Blase and DJ/The Long Gones’ vocalist Bryan Dilsizian approached the scattered Customs about performing for a 30th anniversary celebration of the Shake It label, which released the band’s two seminal 45s. Everyone agreed to the reunion, even Greenberg, who hadn’t played guitar in two decades.
“That was the first show in a long time and it was a lot of fun, even though I couldn’t play very well again yet,” Greenberg says. “I was kind of rusty. It was fun, so that got me going. I had stopped short and didn’t play for a long time and it was exciting and I was inspired again. The analogy is — I was frozen in ice for 25 years like a Neanderthal that all of the sudden got thawed out and I was the exact same thing I was in the past.”
Soon after, Ace Records inquired about re-releasing the first Savages album and Greenberg scoured his archives for bonus material. After meeting with Whitfield about the project, the two considered reuniting the Savages for a new album. In short order, Whitfield, Greenberg and original bassist Phil Lenker were joined by saxophonist Tom Quartulli, former Customs keyboardist/Cincinnati music icon Jim Cole and veteran local drummer Andy Jody.
“I definitely feel lucky that I hooked up with these guys,” Jody says. “It’s a really fun gig and we all get along. When we did the first record, they came to Cincinnati and we rehearsed at my house. We did demos and learned them the best we could and cranked out the record in a week. This (new album) was easier in a way because we were playing together for a couple of years and we could do more original stuff.”
“It was great to be able to make these records and I think they’re probably better than the ones we originally did,” Greenberg says. “We have more maturity and when you get old, you don’t really give a shit what other people think and you seem to have more confidence. Barry never loses his enthusiasm, and he can sing better now than he did then, as far as I can tell. We feel we can do anything.”
The Savages’ triumphant comeback, Savage Kings, was recorded in Cincinnati at Ultrasuede and produced by John Curley; Blase released the U.S. version on Shake It, while the Monster imprint handled it in Spain. The band garnered tons of positive press and did some limited touring (a few U.S. dates and a couple of European tours), and almost immediately began working on the follow-up.
“We made the new record first and called (respected modern Roots music label) Bloodshot and said, ‘We’ve got a finished record, let us know what you think,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, we’ll put that out,’ ” Greenberg says. “It was pretty simple.”
Recorded just like its predecessor, Dig Thy Savage Soul is inspiring almost universal adulation and the Savages are embarking on their most extensive U.S. tour to date, followed by a European jaunt where they’ll film an episode of Later … with Jools Holland.
For their MOTR Pub shows this weekend, the Savages will play two sets each night: the first a tribute to King Records with several guest vocalists (including The Customs’ Thom Heil, The Auburnaires’ Vince Gray, the Hiders’ Beth Harris and The Stardevils’ Lance Kaufman); the second, a straight Savages set packed with songs from the first two and last two albums, and maybe even some new tracks from their next album.
BARRENCE WHITFIELD AND THE SAVAGES, plus DJ Bryan Dilsizian and special guests, play Over-the-Rhine’s MOTR Pub Friday and Saturday. More info: motrpub.com.