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Music Review: Sam And The Soul Machine Po'k Bones & Rice

Can you imagine anyone hiring the Neville Brothers for a gig and then saying, "Oh by the way we don't want any vocalists, so this doesn't include Aaron or Cyril" Strange as that may sound it's what happened to them back in 1968 in New Orleans.

Not having anywhere to play or anyone to gig with didn't suit either of them very well. So they approached keyboard player and arranger Sam Henry to help them put a band together for so they could get gigs. Sometimes those types of accidents are the only nudges fate needs to make something special happen, and that's what happened here.

Sam And The Soul Machine became more than just a band to back up Aaron and Cyril Neville on a temporary basis, and developed a sound and a following of their own. It was soon obvious that they were something pretty special. During the first gig they got with Aaron and Cyril, people were paying to come to their rehearsal nights at the club.

Sam Henry got his start teaching music to kids (which he still does today working in the schools with the children of New Orleans as a strings teacher) and had graduated from Xavier University's music program. So knew his way around a chart and probably didn't stand for too much shit.

Which goes a long way to explaining why their rehearsals always started on time and were of performance quality. It didn't hurt either that the band members were some of the tightest and showiest musicians around New Orleans at the time either. But for all their skill and quality they had the misfortune of not having the right connections.
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Even thought the great keyboard player Alan Toussaint got them one recording deal, (due to the owner of the studio having a nasty problem with IRS the tapes from that session were confiscated by the government along with all his other assets. It was only because Sam Henry had the foresight to have a personal copy made that we're getting to hear them now on this CD) because they weren’t part of his Sea-Saint recording system they weren't going to have any luck getting any further ahead in New Orleans.

They got picked up for a regular gig at James Brown's nightclub in Nashville of all places where they played with everyone from Dr. John and Etta James to the Bee Gees. But disco spelt the end of funk and live bands even in the club owned by the Godfather himself. In 1978 Brown switched his club to disco and taped music and The Soul Machine was done.

But thankfully for us Sam Henry had that master tape saved and we've got the twelve tracks from that original session, plus six more whose provenance is unexplained. (There are no credits in the liner notes or at any of the sites where I've checked about them – I've written to Sam Henry to ask him – if I hear back I'll post them as a comment or an addendum to this review) No matter where these tracks come from they are wonderful examples of some of the smoothest funk you'll hear anywhere.

This isn't the choppy, horn driven funk that we're used to hearing in the east. Far more laid back, it eases into your spine smoothly to get you dancing rather then jerking you off your feet with a blast of noise. You can't help but notice the closeness in sound to what we think of as soul on songs like "Beautiful Morning"

With the only horn being the saxophone of Gary Brown the sound is far more dependent on the keyboard and guitar for the melody and the drum and bass for rhythm then groups like Sly and the Family Stone and their full horn sections. This is the explanation for the softer, subtler, and more soulful sound. Somehow the five people are able to make a sound that is far more substantial then one would suspect coming from such a small band.

Listening to tracks like "Wanted Alive" you'd swear you were hearing a much larger band then a quintet. Undoubtedly a lot of the credit for that has to be given to Sam Henry and his arrangements which seem to be able to get the most out of his limited arsenal of players. Of course the players themselves, Robert "Dog" Bonney on drums, Richard "Rich" Amos on bass, Eugene Sinegal on guitar and Sam himself on the B3 organ are as tight as you'd think they be after the live gigs and tight rehearsing they'd been doing.

Listening to P'ok Bones & Rice one of the strongest feelings I had was of regret that we don't have more of a record of this really great group of players. But I suppose we should be grateful for the fact that we at least have the eighteen songs that survived onto this recording.

Of course it also makes me wonder if the IRS was in the habit of seizing master tapes from studios in trouble, what kind of great music collection their sitting on? Maybe the U.S. government should consider have them digitally re-mastered and released, it would be a quick way to raise some much needed revenue.

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