St. Paul & the Broken Bones rides tide of success
St. Paul & the Broken Bones rides tide of success
MARK HUGHES COBB
Sep. 30, 2017
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — As St. Paul & the Broken Bones assembled its 21st-century version of old-school soul, singer Paul William Janeway — one of the Bear's namesakes — had modest visions.
"Our goal was to sell out Bottletree in Birmingham," said Janeway, of a now-defunct club that held about 225. "That was the goal of this band. Everything else has been kind of unexpected."
Five years later, St. Paul & The Broken Bones have cut a pair of EPs, and two acclaimed albums in 2014's "Half the City" and 2016's "Sea of Noise." Building on raves from NPR, Rolling Stone, Paste magazine, Southern Living and others, the Birmingham-born band is selling out bigger-than-Bottletree venues, from nine European stints to a pair of opening gigs for The Rolling Stones in 2015. Though the group could probably headline its own Tuscaloosa Amphitheater show, the night of Sept. 26, St. Paul & the Broken Bones was the scheduled opener for Daryl Hall & John Oates, the best-selling duo act of all time.
"Going to Europe, I never thought it was something I could afford to do," Janeway said. "We've just been very fortunate."
The rising fame can be surreal, as in moments when he got to hang out with Keith Richards and Ron Wood — more briefly with Mick Jagger, because he's Mick Jagger.
"It's one of those things like, 'How the hell did I get there? How did it happen?'" he said.
It's a rhetorical question, as he can draw lines from the 2013 EP "Greetings from St. Paul & The Broken Bones," with its same-year live follow, through the buzz created by critics such as Ann Powers, who saw them at Green Bar when the band could squeeze its crowds into such spaces, up to select TV and radio appearances. A December 2014 performance for NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series, with Janeway standing atop the desk, dapper in royal blue suit and gold shoes, still gets hits. But by the time of that recording, he'd begun to think their cycle was winding down.
"Then we do Letterman, and that went to a whole other level," he said.
The band's January 2015 performance of "Call Me" lit up the set of "Late Night with David Letterman," in a lovingly-reviewed performance. The now-retired late-night host coaxed the band: "I want this to be like the first time. I tell ya something, a true story: The first time I heard this song, I was screaming until I cried. That's what I want. Can you do that for me tonight? And it won't be your fault, but if I don't get that, I'm going to stop the show, and we'll do it over. Let's launch this rocket, OK?"
"And that happened and we couldn't stop," Janeway said. "It's been a very interesting kind of journey."
Janeway and bandmates maintain firm control of their destiny. Much like Alabama Shakes before them, St. Paul & The Broken Bones dodges big-bizz machinery as much as possible, working social media and connections. Thanks to the successes of Jason Isbell, Drive-by Truckers, John Paul White of The Civil Wars and Alabama Shakes, it's possible: Music and musicians from this state have paths.
"I'm kind of a control freak, from our posters to our merch, to how a show goes," he said. "We have control of everything that we do, which I think is really important. It's just become more difficult. If you think of it as a business, as the business grows, you've got to start trusting people with certain things, because you just don't have time to deal with it all."
But regardless of who helps on the business end, Janeway masters the stage.
"We usually get 'em. I kind of have a refuse-to-lose attitude," he said. "If the crowd's not into it, I'm going to make them into it, or make them leave. ... You came to a show."
At the time of the interview, Janeway hadn't yet met Hall or Oates, who booked them to open gigs here, in Texas and Florida. St. Paul & The Broken Bones last played the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater as openers for John Mayer, and were thinking of headlining here.
"But we probably need another record under our belt," he said, the one they've been cutting away at in Los Angeles. It's still in progress, so he can't say much, except that "It's a bit ambitious for us."
So they're happy to return, especially as Janeway, being a Crimson Tide fan, loves this city. One of the few demands he puts in contract riders: On game days, he needs a place to watch the Tide roll.
"It's a special place for me, Tuscaloosa," he said, though he can recall a more humbling show at the venue, when the band played a private event for Mercedes.
"There were three people watching in that whole amphitheater. Then I remember a clown walking through the midsection," he said, laughing.
More folks were following the clown than their sounds. "I thought then, 'Is this what my life's coming to?' It's funny now, but at the time? ...We don't do a lot of private events now."
Anyone who's seen Janeway working the stage, belting from the heart, dancing like the fevered child of James Brown and a Pentecostal preacher, knows what to expect: "Sweat, and probably some tattered clothes," he said, laughing.
"It's still pretty high octane as far as my energy. But the show is a little more nuanced now. When we first started, we'd punch people in the face for an hour and a half. Now the show builds and peaks at the right times."
Though every gig is another chance to make 'em into it, the band's been honed by experience.
"We don't have seasonal tours now. We just have tours," he said, laughing.
Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com