INTERVIEW: St. Paul and the Broken Bones catches break in quest to provide singular live music experiences

Courtesy photo

If the sounds of braying cattle could be considered soulful, musician Jesse Phillips grew up around soul music. Otherwise, the Canadian bass player didn’t have much for inspiration. Then, in a complete 180, he moved to New Orleans.

“I wanted to immerse myself in a cultural, musical place that was the exact opposite,” Phillips says by phone. “I kind of went there and just had my mind blown.”

What: St. Paul and the Broken Bones
When: 8:30 p.m. June 4
Where: George’s Majestic Lounge, Fayetteville
Cost: $20 (Update: Sold out)

Hurricane Katrina pushed him out of the Big Easy, and he landed in Alabama, home of the Muscle Shoals sound.

But even then, he wasn’t sure soul music was the path forward. He fell in with a rock and roll band called The Secret Dangers, although they never made it out of their basement rehearsal space. In the process, however, Phillips became fast friends with vocalist Paul Janeway. They decided to build a new band together around their combined interests and combined strengths – Phillips’ love of Muscle Shoals and Memphis horns and Janeway’s background in gospel music.

“Somehow, I ended up making Southern soul music with my best friend Paul,” he said.

Recruitment of other band members for the project wasn’t as tough as it might seem. They had something no other band has.

“In theory, it wasn’t a great sale on paper. But he’s a striking singer. When he opens his mouth, people listen.”

Yes, what they have is Paul Janeway, a former minister in training with a booming voice and a stage presence to match. It ended up turning into something like Booker T & the MGs fronting Otis Redding. St. Paul and the Broken Bones, as the project was soon labeled, was ready for the world.

Even if Phillips knew they had found a solid sound, Phillips and bandmates tried to manage expectations. Their first record, “Half the City,” was designed to break even after 10,000 copies were sold. They sold more than 125,000 copies, and that number is still climbing. The band became a critical success, too, and the band carried that success to appearances at major music festivals and on national television programs. 

They’ve since released a second full-length album, “Sea of Noise,” and are touring behind that record. The tour will bring them to George’s Majestic Lounge on June 4. (Update: This concert is sold out.)

The band played George’s twice before, once in 2013 as part of the Fayetteville Roots Festival lineup, and again not long after the release of “Half the City” in early 2014. It’s a better – and bigger – band that comes back this time around. St. Paul and the Broken Bones have expanded into an eight-piece unit, and the band has played approximately 500 shows since their last stop at George’s, honing their sound and expertise.

Record sales have been a nice bonus, and “Sea of Noise” was received well and sold well, too. But St. Paul and company make their reputation on the road.

“Our live show is the difference maker. It always has been,” Phillips said. Likewise, they succeed in the realm of video content, like on YouTube, where the surprising voice of Janeway can be viewed coming from him. Otherwise, you might not believe it.

“It’s hard to convey the fireball energy of someone like Paul Janeway. None of this is fake. It’s all real,” Phillips said.

Unless you’ve recently been to a psychedelic gospel revival, Phillips argues, there really isn’t another live act like St. Paul and the Broken Bones.

He’s not saying that makes them the world’s best band. But he is sure it’s a one-of-a kind experience. And that makes sense, considering everyone’s unlikely path to modern Southern soul. We didn’t know we needed it. But now that it’s here, it’s not to be missed.