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Willie Clayton @ Gene's Lane & Lounge

Feb. 14, 2012

Feb. 16, 2012
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It was Valentine's Day, so Southern soul man Willie Clayton played to the ladies at his latest Milwaukee date, of course. But the effervescent crooner played the entire room with equal aplomb last Tuesday as well.

Bounding onto the stage at Gene's Lane & Lounge in a loose cream-colored three-piece suit, singing as he walked through the room full of couples, there wasn't the slightest hesitation between the DJ announcing him and Clayton bursting forth with "Still Called the Blues." The genial rapport between the singer and the largely middle-aged audience that had come out to celebrate the mid-week holiday at the West Fond du Lac Avenue combination bowling alley and nightclub hosting the show made his 20-plus songs breeze by with an easy panache and intensity.

After opening with the aforementioned original and before assaying abbreviated and full-length versions of many of his hits, Clayton paid tribute to a trinity of pioneers of the genre of which he's a prodigious producer: Tyrone Davis, Johnny Taylor and Marvin Sease. Just as with the tribute paid to him at a touring blues festival last year not long after Sease's passing, it seems one can't mention Sease's evergreen seduction jam, "Candy Licker," and not get into an discussion of cunnilingus. One could say Clayton's thoughts on the matter, met with enthusiastic hoots and hollers by both ladies and gents, turned into an, ahem, extended discourse, as Clayton darted out of his mouth a tongue the dimensions of which may make Kiss frontman Gene Simmons envious.

That ribald moment was the bluest the evening got, though, as Clayton otherwise remained an amiable showman who at points in his set named various VIPs in the audience and insisted that the night's real stars were everyone in their seats who keep him employed by supporting his prodigious musical output that, depending upon whether you believe his own declaration, his website or other online sources, numbers somewhere between 20 and 55 albums, several CDs of which were available for him to autograph after the gig.

Aptly as anyone likely to hit Milwaukee this year, Clayton personifies the curiously cloistered music he specializes in. Southern soul recasts bluesy '60s and '70s R&B with much of the kind of synthetic instrumentation that comprises the vast majority of what's heard on more youth-oriented urban radio. It is, thus, a nostalgic, yet peculiarly modern, sound, populated with lyrics catering to the concerns and experiences of an older African-American fan base. Save for some appreciation by blues lovers across the ethnic spectrum, Southern soul seems far from any kind of broader crossover. No matter his prolific output, Clayton has yet to have his own Wikipedia entry. Locally, his work is most played on WMCS 1290 AM and WJMR Jammin' 98.3 FM, stations programming to mature black listenerships. Clayton graciously acknowledged both.

Flanked by two men helming both an iMac and a traditional keyboard, Clayton had plenty of room to move about and encourage crowd participation, from asking all who were drinking to raise their glasses in a toast to Whitney Houston (after which he momentarily riffed on "I Will Always Love You") to getting gals to dance to such  groove-laden hits as "Boom Boom Boom" and "Shake Your Money Maker," the latter acting as a call to one who briefly joined Clayton up front to grind her backside.

Late into his set, Clayton turned a handful of his tunes into an intimate medley bereft of the full backing tracks emanating from his accompanists' computers. Before wrapping up by wishing his fans God's blessings and the common black church assurance that the Almighty is good all the time, Clayton ended with one of his catalog's better-known contributions to the cannon of songs chronicling adultery and its consequences, "Three People (Sleeping in My Bed)," highlighting his skill as a whistler during the bridge. Considering the occasion he was there to help the crowd celebrate, it may have been an odd choice for a closer, but one that nevertheless elicited enthusiasm from the lovebirds who showed out for a most enjoyable time of neo-rootsiness.

Clayton wasn't the only one to earn some shine, however. Local openers and Gene's Tuesday night regulars Jon Pierre Gee & Ahvant Soul meshed mellow fusion jazz with elastic funk for a lengthy set of vocal jazz and old-school R&B remakes featuring plenty of sweet dueting between Gee and his female partner. Though it's doubtful any band can adequately pay tribute to James Brown without some brass in its line-up, which Ahvant Soul lacks, the act stands as a likely under-appreciated gem among the city's live music scene.


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