Barrence Whitfield & The Savages | Interview & Preview
By Cara Gibney
Barrence Whitfield & The Savages. A boiling mix of rock and roll and R&B. There’s soul, and rockabilly, and there’s the voice that shifts to high, then shouts, starts screaming – Little Richard type screaming – ‘the music has moved me’ type screaming. And there’s the relentless on-stage boogie. Slamming, bouncing boogie. High octane, evangelical, dramatic, and riddled with tomfoolery. All of it buoyed by the simmering garage punk of The Savages, cranking it up, ready when you are to rip it all up and leave the danced-out body parts onstage.
Whitfield was chatting over the phone on the Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day, amused at the thought of Belfast’s communal sorehead. He was explaining how he, Barry White (he took on a pseudonym for obvious reasons), grew up in New Jersey, with church going parents and a Pentecostal preacher uncle. “My church was right across the street from where I lived so I couldn’t get out of going. A preacher, or whoever, would come to my house in the morning and knock on the door and ask my mum, ‘Hey is Barry going to come to church today?’”
He listened to a lot of radio. “On Sundays it was gospel radio. If I touched the dial my mum would hit my hand. During the week we would listen to the usual – James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke – you know, soul singers. And I think a lot of that carried over to me having aspirations to be like the singers I was listening to. I was fascinated by the music and it just moved me, just like the gospel music did.”
However, that Pentecostal spirit was entering Whitfield’s musical tenor from other angles. The fire and fury of his uncle, the Pentecostal preacher, was capturing Whitfield’s imagination. “My stage act is pretty much kind of derived from my uncle who was a Pentecostal preacher,” he explained. “I watched him preach. I watched him take the bible and slam it on the podium, and point. His voice would be turned up to 10, and he would just go crazy about damnation and all that.” Whitfield started to chuckle. “Pretty much that was what I would call a great act. I mean it wasn’t an act, it was something he believed in, but the way he did it – he would come out to move a congregation and I think that has kind of transferred onto me. I learnt a lot by watching him, so I use that a lot in my performances.”
As a young man, Whitfield left the family home to study in Boston. “I went there to study to be a journalist, but that never happened … I probably did better becoming a musician.” After college he went on to work in Nuggets record shop, where he met guitarist Peter Greenberg – and so sprang the genesis of Barrence Whitfield & The Savages.
Over the years they developed a loyal fanbase across Europe, much to the credit of radio presenter Andy Kershaw who first pushed and pulled to get them over to the UK all those years ago. “He played the record on his programme and got a lot of people listening,” Whitfield recalled. “Finally, [Kershaw] said ‘That’s it, I’m going over to America to see what this is all about.’ So, they came over to Boston to go to a show.” Kershaw must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Onstage, through Whitfield’s own high-octane performance, he had wound himself into paroxysm. “They carried me off stage and took me back to the dressing room. [Kershaw] said ’Are you alright?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I just passed out.’ People were yelling and screaming and just getting frenzied and wild, and [Kershaw] said ‘This is great! This is wonderful, this is the greatest rock and roll band I’ve seen in years. We’ve got to have you in England, we’ve just got to have you in England!” And so, his love affair with Europe began.
Barrence Whitfield & The Savages have recently embarked on a 5-week European tour that includes Belfast’s Black Box on 03 May, for Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. The show will include “a combination of stuff from the new album, Soul Flowers of Titan, some classics, and an introduction to who we are and what we do …We’ll be darting about like a nuclear missile,” he warned me.
“I haven’t been to Belfast in ages,” Whitfield quipped as he cast his mind back to his last visit. “It was probably the late 90s or something like that. I remember because I wanted to go to Cyprus Avenue.” And now that he’s back, it’s starting to look like Barrence Whitfield wants to get caught one more time, up on Cyprus Avenue. “We’re going to have a good time,” he laughed. “We’ll drink some good stout, meet some great people, and we want to go to the home of Van Morrison.”
Barrence Whitfield and The Savages + Sunglasses After Dark DJs play The Black Box on Thursday 3 May, 8.00PM Tickets are due to sell out before next week’s gig, so we recommend you get on it – here’s the link: www.cqaf.com