Deceiving Appearances: John Starkey at Jitters

Sally McGraw caught John Starkey's regular Saturday show at Jitters on Hennepin Avenue. His big soulful voice was a welcome surprise. Check out the recording of "Sugar" accompanying this review--

John Starkey
the band
Starkey at al

With some vocalists, a cursory glance will give you a sneak preview of the voice to come. Sheryl Crow looks just like a slightly nasal mezzo; Barry White is the picture of a cavernous, rumbling bass; and Rob Zombie is obviously going to make a howl that will set your teeth on edge. Often the physique mirrors the vocal capacity. But others will surprise you – and big tomcat men like John Popper with high, light tenors and bitsy little women like Erykah Badu who turn out to be big, brassy belters are often far more entertaining to watch. You keep asking yourself, “Where is that sound COMING from?”

Such is the case with John Starkey. Imagine a goatee-sporting beanpole of a white guy with sultry, soulful drawl that invokes the venerable ghosts of Marvin Gaye, Sam and Dave, and Al Green. Now give him a powerful, sweet falsetto that puts Curtis Mayfield to shame. Add a tight rhythm section and a pair of killer backup singers and you’ve got an R&B outfit with soul to spare.

A 2004 Minnesota Music award-winner for best male vocalist, Starkey and his band bring the funk to Jitters every Saturday from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. And they do draw quite an enthusiastic crowd. Backup vocalists Maren DeSaix and Clare Carruth perch on high stools while stocking-capped bassist Cody McKinney and drummer Pete Hennig spread across the designated stage area. All musicians stay seated for the majority of the show, giving it a relaxed, casual feel.

On this unseasonably warm February night, the band warmed up with a few original numbers – including the mellow, gospel-tinged “Weeping Willow” – which showcased the three vocalists’ flawless blend and Hennig’s subtle versatility. The mix was a bit off, and Starkey’s sparse acoustic guitar was drowned out by McKinney’s strong, steady bass. As the group sauntered through a set of moderate funk grooves, it became clear that Starkey’s strengths were in his versatile vocals and in his choice of musical cohorts. Songs such as “Hands in Your Pocket” came to rest in repetitive chord ruts for their verse sections, and took flight into musically disjointed territory for their choruses. Lyrics veered from contemplative and poetic to trite and suggestive. When Starkey’s guitar playing did come through, it was in bursts of strums that mainly complimented the rhythm section with some bright, percussive chords.

But when the mic was turned over to DeSaix for a cover of the Rufus classic “Sweet Thing,” it became clear that this group is capable of a lush, layered sound. A song with more melodic variation and complex chord structures allowed the musicians to show their chops. DeSaix was frustratingly low in the mix, but from what little came through it was obvious that her vocals were effortlessly expressive and utterly gorgeous.

At this point in the set, audience members got up to dance – a real challenge on the dimly-lit, table-cluttered floor of Jitters. Starkey’s original music may be a little sparse for outright listening scrutiny, but it certainly makes exceptional dance music. And from the looks of the dancers, it was agreed that the next logical step was to take those seductive vocals and hypnotic grooves straight from dance floor on into the bedroom.

During “My Soul,” Starkey broke a string, but managed a flawless delivery despite wrestling his guitar for the entire second half of the song. This upbeat groove was driven by a staccato bassline reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, and was the strongest original of the first set. Toward the end, McKinney launched out of his seat for a unexpected but clearly choreographed wild-eyed throaty yell, surprising and amusing the audience.

At the start of the second set, Starkey switched to keys, which added more depth to his arrangements but overpowered McKinney’s agile playing. This set included some more upbeat originals and a string of well-chosen covers. After a killer rendition of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” Carruth took over lead for a subtle, soulful cover of “Forget Regret.” Again, her smoky alto tones were too low in the mix – an aggravating glitch. The band had no one working the soundboard, but if they were concerned about messing with their levels, the female vocalists could’ve swapped mics with Starkey for their solos.

The group moved from Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’” to “You Want It,” a Starkey original with nondescript verses but a pleasingly rough, raunchy chorus. They closed the set with “Sugar,” Starkey’s tightest and most multi-faceted composition (see “Related Content” at the foot of the column to the right of this review for a recording). This song ran his voice from dark, round tones on up to soaring falsetto and back again. “Sugar” also gave bassist McKinney and drummer Hennig something to chew on. As always, DeSaix and Carruth completed the sound with sumptuous-but-precise harmonies. It was wise to end the set with this gem.

Jitters can get mighty cacophonous – corrugated tin walls and a low ceiling mean audience conversation and the shuffling of dishware compete with whatever is floating out of the PA. But it’s a pleasantly quirky place to take in a show – the bizarrely medieval swag lamps and cushy horseshoe-shaped booths creating a cozy ambience ideal for a low-key night of music and booze. For Starkey’s shows, the management would be well advised to move some tables back to create a larger dance floor. The music is more conducive to booty-shaking than to rapt attention, which makes this weekly gig seem like an odd pairing of venue and performer. But Starkey and his exceptional band seem happy with the match, and are slated for an indefinite run of weekend shows there.

If you’re searching for fully mature, gratifyingly complex R&B, best look elsewhere. But if you’re in the mood to dance to something mellower than First Ave’s offerings – or want to get a certain someone in the mood for sexual healing – John Starkey’s free Saturday nights at Jitters are sure to satisfy.

205 E. Hennepin Ave.
Every Saturday 9:30 p.m. – 12:30 a.m.
Free, no cover