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A modern revivalist of seventies music

Pianist and singer Neal Francis’ solo debut is a reincarnation of 1970s music. In his album, New Orleans’ funk gets a classic-style rebirth

Neal Francis’ retro sound melds boogie-woogie, piano, horns and organ.
Neal Francis’ retro sound melds boogie-woogie, piano, horns and organ.

If you are nostalgic for 1970s-style funk, boogie-woogie and soul and sorely miss the music of past greats such as New Orleans’ Dr John, Allen Toussaint or even the legendary super sessions man Leon Russell, there is some consolation that can come your way from Chicago. Neal Francis, 30, recently debuted his first solo full-length, Changes, a refreshing throwback to old-school rock. The album, which came out last autumn, appears to be so uncannily from funk-R&B-rock’s golden era of the early 1970s that it is hard to believe Francis and his band have recorded it now.

Equally remarkable is Francis’ own story. Till only a few years ago, he was on the brink of self-destruction. Alcohol and drugs had taken their toll on the keyboardist, singer and songwriter; a Chicago-based funk band, The Heard, had sacked him; he had been evicted from his apartment; and an addiction-fuelled seizure had led to a broken leg and dislocated arm. He had hit a wall. But then Francis pulled himself out of the hole. He put together a band, composed a bunch of tunes and recorded Changes.

At eight songs, which run for all of 36 minutes, Changes isn’t by any means an epic album. But its sound, steeped in New Orleans-style swamp rock, funk, soul and bygone-era R&B, can easily endear it to fans of those older genres. Francis has a slightly nasal baritone and when he sings, he can sound like a man with a bit of a sniffle or a cold, but that, strangely, is what makes his songs appealing. The band he has formed is talented: guitarist and producer Sergio Rios, bassist Mike Starr (of The Heard) and drummer P.J. Howard (of The Heard and New Orleans’ roots rock band The Revivalists). In addition, session musicians are deployed for horns, more guitars and other instruments. The recording is warm and mostly analogue, like those of yesteryear. As for the lyrics, Francis has delved deep into his own experiences of struggling with substance abuse, broken relationships and erratic behaviour.

Changes is a redemption record in which Francis is trying to start life afresh—to make a success of the second chance he has wrested for himself. In the album opener, This Time, he sings plaintively: Let me get it this time/ I won’t let you down/ Let me get it this time, m’lord/ I won’t fool around. But Francis is not mopey. The songs segue from reflective narratives to upbeat boogies; from funky southern foot-tappers to organ-propelled soul rock. His piano and keyboard riffs—the organ appears on a couple of gospel-influenced tracks—are the highlights of Changes.

The album may be his solo debut but Francis is by no means a greenhorn musician. His introduction to the swampy, funky New Orleans sound began when he was a boy growing up in Chicago and his father handed him an old Dr John album. He began playing the piano early and by his teens he was playing as a sideman in many bands and touring. At 18, he toured Europe with Muddy Waters’ son. Later, during his stint with the new and rising funk band The Heard, he played the festival circuits and jazz festivals all over the US. But as The Heard’s success grew, Francis fell into a vortex of drugs and alcohol, which cost him his place in the band and worse.

All that is in the past. Changes is an album that unfolds surprisingly quickly. 1970s rock with a southern funk tinge has always had a huge appeal, and Francis has been adept at channelling that sound into his music. New Orleans pianist and singer Allen Toussaint, who died in 2015, was a giant in soul and R&B who influenced legions of musicians. Francis’ music sounds so remarkably like his that BBC Radio 6 dubbed him “the reincarnation of Allen Toussaint". That’s high praise for a debutant.

Francis’ second coming has been arduous. For a few years after he was fired from The Heard, he was unable to get back to making music. Changes, however, is a fun album, danceable and bouncy, with an infectious vibe. The formula of reincarnating sounds of a past era works for Francis, though it is true that judging a musician by one full-length album can be risky.

Soul and funk have been witnessing a revival in recent years and many new and young artists have emerged on the scene. But it’s the no-nonsense retro style of Francis’ music that sets him apart. His vocal styling is classic, and his use of boogie-woogie style piano, horn arrangements and organs makes him sound like a blast from the past. A welcome blast that whets the appetite for much more from him.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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