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Funk Soul Brothers 

Harold Ray doesn't exist. But he and his band are one of S.F.'s best live acts.

Wednesday, Sep 24 2003
On a balmy night in August, hordes of vintage scooters -- 100, easily -- line the alley leading to 330 Ritch. Inside the nightclub, a crowd looking alternately like motorcycle-gang members and tight-sweatered hipsters has gathered for the King's Classic Scooter Rally. Presiding explosively over the bopping mass is a ragtag group of soul musicians. The saxophonist sports Buddy Holly glasses and mushroom hair; a keyboard player exhibits such wild gyrations he nearly topples the very organ he's playing. At the front of the stage thrashes the singer, gliding across the floor like it's ice, slamming a tambourine, and letting out wails like James Brown -- if James Brown were a pasty white guy. This is Harold Ray Live in Concert.

In fact, "Harold Ray" is a soft-spoken 27-year-old named Jason Morgan, who prices CDs and 45s at Amoeba Music in Berkeley. But with his five-piece backing band, Live in Concert, Morgan is precisely what he's supposed to be -- frontman for one of the best damn live acts this or any crowd has ever seen. Despite a repertoire of cover tunes, the garage-soul group has concocted a highly original concept: a band that exists for the sole purpose of playing live, even when it comes to making records. Its debut album on Alternative Tentacles, recorded live in one night, was released this month on CD, as well as on vinyl and eight-track -- because along with Harold Ray's devotion to classic soul comes an addiction to vintage equipment, recording formats, and, in some cases, scooters. Sure, it's high concept, but in the best possible way.

"We just wanted to be a live band," says drummer Jack Matthew. "So many bands sound great recorded, but we weren't seeing a lot of bands that put out energy onstage."

In its sentiment and its sound, Harold Ray Live in Concert takes its cues from soul greats like Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and, of course, James Brown. But for material on their self-titled debut album, the musicians infused far dustier catalogs with their infectious, slapdash aesthetic.

On the crowd-pleaser "Ain't Nothing But a House Party," by little-known soul band the Showstoppers, the normally timid Morgan howls sultrily, "I know it's cold outside, baby/ C'mon babe I'll keep you satisfied." On Carl Holmes & the Commanders' "Soul Dance No. 3," Dennis Cabuco tears through with a bass line so frisky you could dance to it on its own. Rousing spurts of Charlie Karr's saxophone adopt the power of entire horn sections on songs like "Barefootin'," penned by obscure New Orleans musician Robert Parker. Then there's "Goin' Back to Miami," by pop-soul oddball Wayne Cochran, which Morgan discovered while growing up in the song's namesake city.

"I'm a big football fan, and when the Dolphins used to score, they would play that song," Morgan remembers. "That was one of my favorite songs as a kid."

The band's record contains just one original tune, titled "The Waycross." Still, everyone but the most seasoned soul fan will be as unfamiliar with the covers as he is with the Harold Ray­penned song. "They might as well be originals," says saxophonist Karr.

Since the band's inception 2 1/2 years ago, cutting-edge songwriting has never been the goal. Even before their Harold Ray arrived, founding members Karr and Matthew decided to name the band Live in Concert, then attach that to the moniker of whatever frontman came on board.

"It was very high concept, an art project with music attached," remembers Karr with a smirk. "We had the concept hammered down well before there was any chance to execute it."

The pair set out to find a guitarist with a fruitless series of classified ads. ("Never put out an ad for a guitar player," Matthew warns, "unless you're approaching it as an art project in itself.") Instead, the band happened upon organist Justin Magaña, whose enthusiastically calamitous stage antics with other bands had caught Karr's attention. "I saw him onstage and realized this was exactly what our band needed," he says.

Similarly, guitarist Dave Coffman had seen Karr perform with another soul band, the Inciters, and was duly impressed. So it was serendipitous when a mutual friend suggested that Karr invite Coffman, who'd never been in a band before, to join the group. "I was like, 'Soul? That sounds like fun. I could get behind that,'" says the 24-year-old Coffman.

When it came to choosing a singer -- and the band's namesake -- Magaña suggested Morgan, an acquaintance he'd seen perform in the power-pop band the Close-Ups. "He was a great frontman, and I thought, 'I gotta be in a band with this guy someday,'" says Magaña. "I saw him at Amoeba and asked him to come to a practice. Everybody knew right away [that he was perfect]."

A month before the first show -- October 2001 at the Eagle Tavern -- Cabuco came on as bassist, and the newly christened Harold Ray Live in Concert was complete. Along with his bold stage persona, Morgan adopted an alter ego derived from his middle name, "Harold," and his dad's middle name, "Ray."

"I'm not like Harold," Morgan says. "It's a character. The name better suits the stage presence."

Buzz began building at the first concert, and with no merchandise or demo tape, the band scored subsequent gigs by word-of-mouth. At venues like Thee Parkside and the Tempest, Harold Ray Live in Concert inspired normally docile indie rockers to get down and caught the ears of unlikely fans -- including Jello Biafra, one-time Dead Kennedys frontman and head of local label Alternative Tentacles. Biafra discovered Harold Ray at a Hemlock show in early 2003, when his girlfriend took him to see the group.

"He had never seen a band that does quite what we do," Karr says. "He ended up tracking down our singer, and it all just sort of happened from there."

By April the band had signed with AT, and on May 3 (James Brown's birthday) it recorded its first album -- live, of course, in a single show at the Werepad east of Potrero Hill.

Karr handled sound engineering, and in the band's old-school spirit, the recording was conducted almost entirely with vintage equipment -- analog tape, a four-track recorder, and reproduction microphones.

"We try to use what was state-of-the-art at the time our music was originally created," Karr says. "It lends a certain sound to it."

Putting an entire album on tape in one night can wrack one's nerves, but Karr pulled it off -- though not without some difficulty. The night before, organist Magaña (an electrical engineer) was busy mending power-supply problems. And, as Matthew points out, "We had a soldering iron on hand, and we used it." Cabuco adds, fittingly, "That pretty much says it all."

Harold Ray Live in Concert came out Sept. 16 on vinyl and CD, and the band will also offer homemade eight-track tapes for the select few who want them. Morgan is a devotee of the medium, with an eight-track player in his 1974 Plymouth Duster, so he and Karr are collecting old tapes from thrift stores to record over -- including a recent windfall: "The other day, my friend gave me the New Testament on 16 volumes," Karr says.

The album is a strange match for the punk-oriented Alternative Tentacles, but at the same time, Harold Ray isn't completely out of place amid AT's roster. "Clearly we're not a punk rock band, but we do have the energy," Matthew says.

But the signing is also something of a risk for AT. Because Harold Ray Live in Concert has never played outside the Bay Area, its nationally distributed debut won't meet with ready-made fans. Also, newbies may find themselves wondering why the record sounds more like a bootleg than a polished Motown classic. While the CD captures the energy of a Harold Ray live show, the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. The problems can probably be chalked up to the band's lack of recording experience, but the mix is frustratingly off. At times, Morgan's vocals sound as if they're emanating from across an echoey room, and between songs there is an occasional background hiss.

Admittedly, live albums are incredibly difficult to engineer, and that Harold Ray pulled it off with such style is admirable -- particularly for a band that never had a grand vision. For most of the members, Harold Ray Live in Concert began as a side project, squeezed between day jobs and other musical ventures -- everything from Cabuco's rock-instrumental act Sound Odyssey 3 to Matthew's Star Trek theme band, No Kill I: The Next Generation (a tribute band to another Star Trek tribute band; "I'm an accordion-playing Romulan," Matthew declares).

With such full plates, the band members haven't looked very far into the future -- though a tour will likely be in the works soon. The musicians have even considered performing as their own opening act, only with another singer. ("We could just be called [fill in the blank] Live in Concert," Matthew explains.) But whatever comes next, the Harold Ray expects it will just fall into place the way everything else has so far.

"It all just sort of happened as a result of us just playing live," Karr says. "Which is all we ever really intended to do."

About The Author

Nancy Einhart


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