Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings had their new album, “Give the People What They Want,” finished and ready to go last summer. They had announced a release date, booked a tour, and started promoting shows when Jones was diagnosed with bile duct cancer.
The tour was scrapped and the album was shelved so that the 57-year-old soul singer could focus on her recovery. In January, she received a clean bill of health. The band released the album and rebooked the tour, which comes to the House of Blues in New Orleans Saturday night.
According to Dap-King Gabe Roth, the band wrote the setlist for the first shows with the idea of making it easier on Jones — more ballads, fewer high energy dance numbers, and provisions for what to do if she needed to take a break. But Jones had other ideas.
“She was stomping the whole time,” he said. “She wanted to dance and sing. She sounds better than she ever has.”
They realized after the opening night of the tour at the Beacon Theater in New York City that not only was Jones up to the challenge of singing and dancing her way through the sort of show the band is known for, but that she was stronger than she had been in recent years.
“What a lot of us didn’t realize is that she hadn’t been onstage without cancer in her gut for a while,” Roth said.
Roth and fellow Dap-King Neal Sugarman founded the band’s label, Daptone Records, which specializes in artists that embrace the values of the classic soul and R&B records including Jones and Charles Bradley, who’ll return to Jazz Fest this year.
They’re record fans, so the label is a vinyl-first label. The major releases come out in all formats, but they regularly release limited edition 45 rpm singles. “Give the People What They Want” was made with the vinyl album in mind.
“People who are listening to stuff digitally, they’ve got their iPods on shuffle,” Roth said. “They’re not really paying attention to the album as it was created, as one piece of work. We have a lot of respect for people who are listening to LPs, so when we try to sequence an album, we think, ‘What should kick off Side 2?’ ‘What should end Side 1?’ And there are technical limits. If you start getting too long on a side, it starts sounding not as good.”
The band recorded far more songs than made it to the album, but efforts to figure out what sequence would create two coherent sides of music shaped the final choices.
“I think questions like that should be questions of quality, not questions of quantity,” Roth said. Some tracks were shelved for future projects; some will never see the light of day.
The group’s love of R&B from the late ’50s to the early ’70s has prompted writers to attach the label “retro” to them—a tag that clearly hits a nerve. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Jones said, “I ain’t retro. Don’t call me retro.”
Roth agrees. “We’re not going through the motions. We’re very conscious of that. If somebody comes up with something that feels like a cliché, that doesn’t fly. ‘Don’t play that, man. That’s corny.’ We’re our own hardest critics.”
It’s easy to hear why people think of the band that way. The lineup is a traditional soul lineup complete with a horn section, and the show starts as soul shows once did, with the band playing an instrumental that sets the stage for Jones’ introduction.
But Roth, Sugarman and the members of the band are students of R&B, and their arrangements are subtly smart as the songs combine parts that would never have happened on the same record — a part from Stax, another from Motown, something from James Brown, a little something from New Orleans, and a bit of Philly soul.
That eclecticism presents something that never existed before, and the songs are created not by self-conscious grabbing but an honest passion for making cool songs.
“It’s a lot bolder for us to reject the way that everybody’s been doing things for 30 years and take a raw, human-based approach,” Roth said.
“It may be similar to what was going on in the ’60s, but it’s not based on it. It’s not a question of ‘What would Smokey Robinson have done?’ I would say we have a lot more in common with punk or singer/songwriters than we do with ‘retro soul’ or neo-soul.”
When Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings started in 2001, the tracks were often more groove than song. Recent albums show stronger songwriting chops, putting Jones’ voice in more complete songs and harmonically rich musical environments.
“Now I See” on “Give the People What They Want” features bells and tympani rolls that add drama, while the backing vocalists who sing the fluttering chorus on “Making Up and Breaking Up” are a sweet counterpoint to Jones’ raw passion.
For Roth, it’s the natural result of the band becoming more musically accomplished, but it’s also a product of their time together. “We know each other better,” he said. “We know each others’ stories.”