The New York Times
February 20, 2013
The Rev. Gean West says he feels like Abraham, whom God made a father in his dotage. It’s been 43 years since he and his brother Tommie formed the gospel group the Relatives in Dallas and 33 years since the band broke up after releasing a few funky singles but scoring no hits.
Yet here the West brothers are, putting out their first full-length album, with several new songs and a few of their old numbers. At 75, Gean West is touring again, playing places like Lincoln Center, the Bell House in Brooklyn and Joe’s Pub.
“This is a God-sent thing because of the way it came about, how everything fell in place,” he said, sitting in a dressing room with the other original band members after a recent performance at the Greene Space, the performance site of WNYC radio. The drummer Earnest Tarkington, 66, nodded in agreement. “God kept us healthy for this occasion,” he said. Tommie, 66, the lead singer, chimed in: “My congregation can’t wait until the CD drops. Every one of them wants one.”
On Tuesday the Relatives released “The Electric Word” (Yep Roc), a collection of 10 gospel songs that the group recorded with the producer Jim Eno last year in Austin, Tex. These are not traditional church tracks. The Relatives sing a burning gospel refracted through the lens of psychedelic rock, heavy R&B and 1970s funk. Their riffs and drum grooves owe as much to Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone as to the Rev. James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar. “Even back then people would tell us that we was ahead of our time,” Gean said. “We always did our own thing.”
These days forgotten groups like the Relatives are being resurrected by young crate-digging producers at indie labels with some frequency, as musicians weaned in the era of Auto-Tuned voices and electronic drum tracks search for a rougher, handmade sound, an authenticity rooted in a place and a time.
“There has been a backlash against overproduced music, and I think these older cats have something to teach us about raw music,” said Noel Waggener, the producer who rediscovered the Relatives.
Others recently rescued from history’s dustbin include Rodriguez, the Detroit songwriter who saw his long-dormant career revived over the last year by the documentary movie and album “Searching for Sugar Man” (Light in the Attic Records). Similarly, Bettye LaVette, the R&B singer, was saved from obscurity about 10 years ago, and Anti- records, home of bands like Calexico and Dr. Dog, gave her a deal in 2005. Bill Bragin, the director of public programming at Lincoln Center, said the trend was not unlike the folk revival of the 1960s, when young musicians in Greenwich Village sought out and recorded folk and blues masters like the Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. “There is always this interest when you discover a great artist that somehow history never picked up on,” Mr. Bragin said.
For the Relatives the road back to making music started with a cracked 45 r.p.m. record that the mother of an Austin drummer, Mike Buck, found at a thrift shop more than seven years ago and gave to her son. It was one of the three singles the group had released in the early 1970s — the grooving “Don’t Let Me Fall” and, on the flip side, a funk number, “Rap On.” Mr. Buck, who also owns Antone’s Record Shop in Austin, shared the recording with his friends, including Mr. Waggener, a founder of an archival record label, Heavy Light. “I was completely blown away,” Mr. Waggener said.
Mr. Waggener and his partner, Charisse Kelly, tracked down Gean (pronounced gene) at a ramshackle church in Dallas, where he was pastor over a dwindling flock. Surprised by the inquiry, he said there were about five unreleased Relatives songs that Phil York, the Dallas producer, had recorded in 1975. When Mr. Waggener and Ms. Kelly visited Mr. York, he not only remembered the recording session but made them a copy of the master, which he had called “The Electric Word” because he didn’t know the group’s name.
Heavy Light reissued these recordings as an album, “Don’t Let Me Fall,” in 2009, which received good reviews. Gean West, who had a successful career in the 1960s with influential gospel groups like the Mighty Golden Voices and the Southernaires, reassembled a band to begin touring again.
“I didn’t believe it,” Mr. Tarkington recalled. “I thought he was crazy.” Since only three of the original lineup of seven were healthy enough to perform, Gean recruited two younger singers — Tony Corbitt and Tyron Edwards — to fill out the sound.
Starting with a 2009 reunion concert at the Continental Club in Austin the band spent the next three years barnstorming festivals with its four-part harmonies and funky grooves. The group blew away a crowd at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans in September 2010, and that success led to appearances at Austin City Limits and the Bonnaroo festivals. Mr. Bragin engaged them to open for Mavis Staples at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in the summer of 2011 and brought them back to headline a show this year.
In March 2010, Mr. Eno, the producer and drummer for Spoon, heard the Relatives play in Austin, opening for the garage-soul group Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. Awed by the sound, he approached the Relatives about recording an album. “It was this gospel group with heavy rock and psychedelic influences,” Mr. Eno said. “I felt like this would be really great to document.”
During two sessions last year Mr. Eno preserved the group’s 1970s rock-and-funk aura but also gave the sound a contemporary indie-rock texture. The five gospel voices — led by Tommie’s cracked and soulful timbre — are backed by a trio of young rockers from Austin: the guitarist Zach Ernst, the drummer Matt Strmiska and the bassist Scott Nelson. There are only two traditional gospel tunes on the album, one of them the a cappella “Trouble in My Way.” The record is mostly hard-driving R&B dance grooves that evoke James Brown or the Parliaments, like the funky “It’s Coming Up Again” and the hypnotic “Let Your Light Shine.”
The West brothers said it had been surreal to be touring again. Tommie quit the group in the mid-1970s, started a bar and played in R&B bands for a time.
“We was on our way to Houston, and Tommie and I was in the back seat and I punched him and said, ‘Man, what are we doing back out here?’ ” Gean recalled. “He said, ‘Man, I don’t know.’ And we all started laughing. It’s just amazing.”
Tommie said people seem more open to their style now. The Relatives often got a cool reception from older churchgoers in Dallas in the early 1970s. Their sound was too close to R&B for the church, too laden with gospel lyrics for R&B radio. They ended up playing in hotel bars and nightclubs as well as churches.
These days audience reaction at festivals and clubs has been more open-minded, Tommie said. “It’s electrifying,” he said. “It’s really awesome. I get a charge, I get energy, when I look out and they are clapping, they are jumping.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 20, 2013
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to one of the New York clubs where the group the Relatives has played recently. It was the Bell House in Brooklyn, not the Brooklyn Bowl.