"What we do could be interpreted as R&B in spirit," explains Gregg Foreman, guitarist and vocalist for the Delta 72. "But it's definitely not R&B in its purest form. I don't think anybody is going to confuse us with Sam and Dave or Babyface."
Amen to that. Even though The R&B of Membership--the Touch and Go label debut of this Philadelphia-based quartet (Foreman, keyboardist Sarah Stolfa, drummer Jason Kourkounis and bassist Bruce Reckahn, who recently replaced bassist/vocalist Kim Thompson)--overflows with magnetic grooves, the beats are so manic and punky that they would probably cause the average Babyface booster to run back to his well-worn copy of "Every Time I Close My Eyes." It's a raucous, pogo-happy home-brew that owes as much to Iggy Pop and James Chance as it does to Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.
Still, there's more to Delta's sound than mere muscle: Membership is a surprisingly soulful record whose rootsy authenticity suggests that the players have spent plenty of time studying the R&B masters of old. "Rich Girls Like to Steal" finds Foreman reeling out gutsy slide-guitar chops worthy of the late, great Willie Dixon, while the rump-shaking instrumental "Frigid" sounds as if it could have been plucked directly from a Booker T. & the MGs set list. Other cuts benefit from Stolfa's swinging Farfisa organ, which infuses the songs with a kitschy, thrift-store feel normally associated with early garage-rock pioneers like ? and the Mysterians.
Membership's impressive amalgam of trashy thrash, experimental noise and down-home juke jive might seem like a strange combination, but it makes perfect sense to Foreman. In his view, the Delta 72's emphatic jams spring from many musical traditions, some far older than anyone in the band.
"For myself, I can almost trace a line from R&B to what we're doing right now," he notes. "It goes all the way back to the old field-hand stuff, which evolved into blues and gospel music and later into R&B. Then the white kids started getting into it--bands like the Stones and the Who. And when they were no longer effective, along came the Stooges and the MC5, followed by the Sex Pistols and weird new-wave bands like Richard Hell & the Voidoids and the Contortions. Then the Germs, Black Flag, Fugazi and the D.C. stuff. And now us."
The Delta 72 aren't going it alone. Having tired of the old-school punk ideals of the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, more and more modern players, including those in Washington, D.C.'s Make-Up, Austin's Lord High Fixers and Memphis's Oblivians, are putting a new, slightly art-damaged soul train on the tracks. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is also part of this movement, but Foreman (whose group was dubbed "The Delta 72 Garage Rock Explosion" by CMJ) is tired of being compared to this much-hyped outfit--and he's just as sick of Spencer himself. The two have been on poor terms ever since they scrapped at a Six Finger Satellite show last year. According to Foreman, the scuffle ended when he clocked a drunk Spencer in the eye--and while the Blues Explosion frontman subsequently bought Foreman a drink as a peace offering, the relationship between the two camps remains chilly. "There's that heavy irony thing going on with the Blues Explosion that I don't care for," Foreman says bluntly. "You know, they've got the whole New York blooooze thing going on, which is okay. But it's sort of like they're doing this goofy, Cramps-like Elvis shtick, whereas we're not about trying to be funny. We're about making music. We make music for people who want to come out and see a real show--not some traveling vaudevillian sideshow."
These are strong words--but those who've caught the Delta 72 in performance know that Foreman can back them up. Live, the singer is a lanky, black-clad whirlwind who, when he's not inflicting bodily harm on his Les Paul, can usually be found stomping his feet and blowing frantically on his harmonica or soaring off the drum riser like a young, sideburned Pete Townshend. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew lays down a funky, albeit punishing, backbeat that all but dares the audience not to join in and shake a leg. On a good night, a Delta show is like a sweaty, roadhouse brawl; the only thing missing is the chicken wire that protects the foursome from glass projectiles. As Foreman acknowledges, audience participation can make or break the act's appearances. "We're the type of band where the show can be different every night depending on the crowd," he warns. "If the crowd wants it to be a crazy freakout, it will be. They are as much a part of the show as we are."
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What about fans of the old Motown sound? Will they find themselves succumbing to the band's pummeling, Nineties-style R&B as well? Foreman admits that the jury is still out on that one, but he's hopeful that they, too, can grow to appreciate the Delta 72. "All our songs are dance numbers," he notes. "So in that sense, our music is pretty universal. But I'm sure that some of the older cats would probably look at us and think, 'What is this punk shit?' We would probably seem a little extreme to them.
"But times change," he adds. "I mean, people used to think that the Beatles and James Brown were a little crazy, too."
Brainiac, with the Delta 72 and U.S. Maple. 9 p.m. Friday, April 11, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $6, 572-0822.