Washington, DC • May 6, 2017
by Rick Harris
There is nothing understated or underestimated about Mavis “Swan” Poole. She’s the confident, eyeball and ear magnet of a lead singer of the New York City based soul, jazz and funk band, Soul Understated. Poole is joined by Jeremy “Bean” Clemons, a slightly more understated but decidedly cool drummer who has a gift of gab, jazzy jackets and still mops his brow with a washcloth between songs.
Soul Understated had a tall task this night because many things make a Millennium Stage concert challenging. Held in the halls of the posh, red carpeted, white draped and the Italian marbled Kennedy Center, Millennium stage shows are free to locals and tourists from all over the world 365 days a year. That’s one performance every night. All concerts start promptly at 6PM and end at 7PM – no exceptions. That means you have just 60 minutes to win over an audience that’s often made up of septuagenarians who take advantage of this DC freebie.
The lighting, acoustics and AV are all on point at the Millennium, but the stage is tucked away in the corner of the Kennedy Center and the audience is treated to background noise from the massive audiences queuing for various plays in the main theaters. On this night Soul Understated was competing with the Indigo Girls and comedian Kevin Nealon on the bigger stages.
Despite the obvious challenges of the Millennium Concert Series, Soul Understated handled their DC business. Eight members assembled on the stage and launched into a free-form jazz, funk fusion that served as a delicious music bed while Clemons set the table and chomped through the performance.
He told the crowd that the band had been influenced by Curtis Mayfield, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie and EWF, and that Soul Understated has been barnstorming the northeast recently to support their new EP Songs in the Key of Grease a on Shenachie Records. He did all this before taking his seat behind the drums which he mastered for the next 54 minutes. Thankfully, Clemon’s set-up was the clumsiest thing we would see all night.
Less than five minutes in, we meet and hear Poole who had been patiently waiting in the wings. All sparkles and spandex, Poole poured into her opening outfit (there was a costume change) and let her honey voice flow all over “Honey Glaze” as she told us that she knew that we were “peeping through the door” and we “wanted her on the floor” so we could “have her honey glaze.” She then playfully closed the song by warning us to “keep your hands off my stuff.” Hello, ladies and gents, this isn’t your Momma and Daddy’s jazz, funk show.
Poole continued to tease, tattle, shake and shimmy for the next 20 minutes on songs like “Wibble, Wobble”, “The Way I See” and “1 Monkey.”
Midway through the performance the great Maurice “Mighty Moe” Hagans of EW fame, joined the band for a percussion smack down on “So What.” Easily the most energetic song of the show, Hagans, Clemons and the band went deep down into DC’s roots with the Chuck Brown inspired song featuring horns, drums, cowbell and a downright contagious breakdown. Poole would take her leave from the stage for the costume change and second act while Hagans banged out “So What” with Clemons, Rashaan Carter, bass; Samir Moulay, guitar; Phillip Graves, organ; Kevin Theodore, Moog, synth, bass; Albert Strong, trumpet; and Timothy James Robinson, trombone.
Two thirds in, Soul Understated delivered their knock-out blow with the soulful, sensual, heartbreaking and completely unexpected cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Poole’s voice soaked up the lyrics so mired in hopelessness and somehow lifted them up to the ceiling of the Kennedy Center. Twice during her soaring and searing Raiohead homage, the notes were so piercing and pitch perfect that feathers from a previous performance shook loose and floated down.
The band closed the performance with “Gonna Make It” and Poole left the stage to turn the tables and invite audience members to sing this uplifting and perfect-end-to-the-evening funk fest. When one audience member matched her note for note, Poole playfully grabbed the mic out of his hand and said, “give me back my mic, man” before continuing her tour among the thrilled concert goers.
While Poole will get most of the ink for this band for her beautiful voice, jazzy seventies wear and downright badness, it is Clemons who glues this thing together from behind his drum kit. Soul Understated is new, funky and fresh with a jazz line and stage show that everyone one will dig and rock their head to regardless of age.
If you get the chance to see them in a small club, run to get a ticket.