I have often opined on the dearth of young, actual-instrument-playing R&B bands in pop music. It’s a long-standing pet peeve that hip-hop’s influence in much of contemporary R&B is so pervasive that many hip and happening R&B tunes are merely beats with melisma-laden vocal melodies.
Well, ask and you shall receive … sort of. Friday night at Akron’s Musica, Winslow — a local band (yeah, with instruments!) that deftly mixes R&B, pop and rock — will celebrate the arrival of its second CD, Left of the Right Direction, with a CD-release show.
The band — singer Maurice Martin, guitarist Charlie Trenta, keyboardist/trumpeter Curtis Tate, saxophonist Matt Tieman, bassist Danny Kolliner and drummer Jesse Marquardt — has been gigging around Northeast Ohio since 2005, honing its eclectic, groovy and accessible style.
Its solid 2005 debut album, Crazy Kind of Love, sounded like a talented band still figuring out its sound. Left of the Right Direction comes after some lineup changes and other trials and tribulations of trying to be in a successful working band and in your 20s, as intimated by the album title. It’s also a more confident, catchy and radio- (and television commercial and rom-com trailer licensing) ready collection of songs.
It has engineering assistance from Grammy-winning producer Edwin “Tony” Nicholas, who has worked with Barry White, Mary J. Blige and Gerald Levert, and Grammy-nominated engineer Nick Chahwala, who counts Katy Perry and Mariah Carey among his clients, to give the new album a big, crisp, clean sound.
I’ve seen Winslow several times over the years and the band’s musicianship is undeniable. These dudes can play.
Most of the band’s members, past and present, were area music or music-related majors in college and as many folks who work with young, talented and schooled musicians know, sometimes their heightened musical knowledge and abilities can work against them.
“It’s a natural thing, you start playing and you get all kinds of ideas and everybody wants to take the music where they can. But at the end of the day, people start going to your shows because they want to hear the song, so you have to play the song, literally,” said Martin, a music education graduate of Kent State University.
“The thing about this lineup is people are more OK with staying in the pocket and playing the groove,” he continued. “In our first lineup, I think we were all trying to prove ourselves on stage and now we’re all OK with doing our part and just trying to sound big.”
The band’s adjusted focus on serving the song is evident throughout the album’s 10 tracks as is the band’s unforced genre hopping. Opener Ain’t That a Shame sports a rocking riff, some punchy horn charts (yeah, horns!) and Martin’s soulful tenor.
Nothin’s Easy is a laid-back, toe-tapping, R&B/pop tune with some nice vocal harmonies. The autobiographical, inward-looking Quarter-Life and Mo’s Joint are straight-ahead soul ballads while Stand-Up is an arena rock song allowing Trenta to unleash his judiciously used guitar-shredding abilities and a big fist-pumping chorus.
Lyrically, Martin, who co-writes most of the band’s material with Trenta, said many of the songs reference the band’s inner turmoil and the inner turmoil of being in your mid-20s and trying to figure it all out.
“A lot of it is very much about picking yourself up off the ground, chasing your dreams, trying to go find your way in life,” Martin said. “And a lot of that came from when we lost players in the band and I found myself searching. Am I in the right place? Am I supposed to make music? And when I found my voice, that’s when we wrote most of the material.”
While Winslow does not want to be pigeonholed, Martin is quick to point out that the band doesn’t straddle styles to show off, and uses Michael Jackson — one of his major influences — and Jackson’s ability to have hit songs that incorporated rock, pop and R&B as a blueprint.
“People never questioned it because it was Michael Jackson. I think I come from a very similar place as a writer and I think if we get to a certain place and get big enough people will just accept that, but right now people want a way to define us and that’s tough to do,” Martin said. “We call ourselves ‘soul rock’ and I think that opens us up to be able to place the music wherever we need to within that realm.”
The band is also encouraged by the commercial success of other genre-straddling artists such as Maroon 5, which has had success with disco-flavored pop, the Dave Matthews Band and Bruno Mars, whose two-album catalog touches old- and new-school R&B, pop, ’80s music, doo-wop and rock.
“Those are some of the people we really cling to and say if they can do it, so can we,” Martin said.
With the release of Left of the Right Direction, the band is ramping up its efforts to become a full-time endeavor (all the members have day jobs). It recently signed with Cleveland-based indie Little Fish Records and acquired a P.R. team, New York-based Big Picture Media, to help spread the word of Winslow. Additionally, the band has a college radio campaign under way; its single Alone Tonight has received some local radio airplay and it recently appeared on Cleveland’s WJW (Channel 8). The album was also featured in Relix Magazine.
Winslow also will make its first trip to play two gigs at the venerated, blog-buzz-inducing South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, in the spring and hopes to hit a few music festivals and tour.
Martin is still the band’s manager and primary booker and he and the band are realistic about the chances of being “discovered.”
“In 2013, I don’t see a major label walking up to us tomorrow and offering us a view, so we really have to use our resources to go out and build a team,” he said.
But after six years of grooving, rocking and searching, Winslow feels the time is now.
“This feels like a huge step. Internally, we’re not letting ourselves get too excited, we know that the real work starts now, but it just feels like we are right on the cusp of … something big. I think music in general is craving somebody that is different and somebody that is bringing a different angle to the music,” Martin said.
For the big show, Winslow is giving fans a copy of the new album that won’t officially be released until March 26 with the price of their ticket. Additionally, Cleveland reggae king Carlos Jones, who appears on the album, will sit in with the band for a few songs at the show and Martin promises one surprise cover tune.
Also on the bill are pop group the Strange Familiar and singer/songwriter Ryan Humbert.
To check out Winslow for yourself, point your Googlebox to one of their many Web portals: www.facebook.com/winslowsoul, www.twitter.com/winslowsoul, www.youtube.com/winslowsoul, www.instagram.com/winslowsoul.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram. … Go figure.