The Alabama-based band and their stellar lead singer, Paul Janeway, surprised fans with a new experimental tone, while retaining their trademark exuberance and displaying a newfound pop sensibility.

10/5/18 – House of Blues

The dotted lights behind the stage lit up like a starry night sky. One by one, the members of St. Paul and the Broken Bones walked out to Scott Walker’s 1969 classic, “It’s Raining Today.” Their introductory walk-on music was an odd choice. Despite their retro-soul identity, the band’s approach never veered from the classic Motown sound. One would expect their introduction to be filled with horns and extraordinary vocals—not Walker’s Vegas lounge crooning backed by surreal pop instrumentation that was ahead of its time.

Yet, considering Walker’s evolution from 1960s pop icon to experimental musician, the band’s choice to introduce themselves with such a seemingly dissimilar artist starts to make sense. As the band revealed during their hour-and-a-half set, the music on their latest album Young Sick Camellia has also made a dramatic leap from vintage to futuristic—for better or worse.

The band exhibited their evolution midway through the set, after they had played a few of their classic hits, such as “Flow With It” and “Grass is Greener,” which frontman Paul Janeway declared is his favorite song off their first record, Half the City. The band played a prolonged interlude while Janeway walked off stage. Members of the band exchanged solos, including an especially memorable one by keyboard player and organist Al Gamble. Janeway appeared, the starry lights turned red, and metallic clangs and computerized beeps created the base for “Mr. Invisible.” Young Sick Camellia producer Jack Splash, who is credited with Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.D.D City cut “Now or Never,” must have influenced the hip-hop snares, bass, and hi-hat that followed.

The song was a risk. While wonder was palpable when Janeway belted sublime notes on “Grass is Greener,” his voice on “Mr. Invisible”—while still impressive—was mystifyingly overshadowed by the song’s complex psychedelic tone. The performance wasn’t disappointing, but it was vexing and challenging to watch the band’s lead singer–comparable in vocal prowess and stage command to James Brown and Otis Redding—shirk his presence for the sake of the band’s artistic direction. On the other hand, the band’s newfound dimension provided an opportunity to test the limits of genre and envision traditional R&B as if it were played on a spaceship in the distant future.

“NASA” continued the band’s trippy ventures with a lulling guitar intro and dreamy lyrics like, “Moon dust stuck inside the air I breathe/ Jagged mountains with no harmony / Where, where oh where oh where did you go?” Then, as if having made a successful landing back on Earth, the band played two of the most exciting songs off Young Sick Camellia, “GotItBad” and “Apollo.” The former, a disco track that rebukes the hypocritical evangelism of Janeway’s home state of Alabama, contains an infectious trumpet riff that declares triumphant enlightenment. The latter, which the audience sang along to most loudly during the set, boasts an immensely memorable chorus: “Tellin’ all the stars her name/ Hopin’ interstellar hey / And I love you baby, / I love you baby.” While the band showed their willingness to take risks, they also revealed a growth in crafting radio-friendly hits.

For their encore finale, Janeway declared he would be coming to “see y’all” before walking through the crowd and singing the band’s namesake, “Broken Bones and Pocket Change.” Snaking his way to the back of the audience, donning a multicolored sequined cloak, Janeway transformed the House of Blues: we were in a living room with an extraterrestrial visitor with a majestic voice.

When he finally made it back on stage, the night’s theme of space and exploration finally came together. Although St. Paul and the Broken Bones will always have the ability to capture an emotional high, their interests lie beyond that. They want their listeners to see them up close, as Janeway demonstrated during his procession through the crowd, and see them as artists—not mere entertainers—who grow and change as people do on their journeys towards the infinite.

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