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V/A - Local Customs: Downriver Revival

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Artist: V/A

Album: Local Customs: Downriver Revival

Label: The Numero Group

Review date: Mar. 2, 2009

The Numero Group specializes in unearthing musical scenes that you’d likely miss unless you stub your toe on the rock under which they’ve been hiding. And so it is with Downriver Revival. It surveys the work of Ecorse, Michigan’s Revival label and its associated studio, Double U Sound, both of which were operated by one Felton Williams.

Williams grew up just south of Detroit in Ecorse’s projects. He parlayed an early fascination with the steel guitar he heard at his spiritual home, the Church of the Living God, into a sort of cloistered fame, playing at various congregations around the area, and his precocious talent for building electronic sound equipment from scratch earned him a job at a Ford Motors plant. These two gifts came together in a calling that occupied much of Williams’ time for a decade and a half, not to mention filling up his family room with recording gear. In 1966, the same year the Supremes charted “You Can’t Hurry Love” for the local label one burg to the north, Williams began raising money for his Revival recording company by selling stock to his neighbors. When he got the studio running the next year, he began preserving sounds that could not have been more different from Motown’s slick, well scrubbed, au courant, universally accessible pop. The Gospel Supremes’ “Sinner Man” hurtles like a chariot blazing through the nether regions, picking up lost souls on its way up. It also sounds like it could have been recorded anytime in the past 40 years, establishing a trend that Williams would adhere to throughout his recording career.

Ignorance of the latest fashions and outright anachronism were no barrier to getting recorded; you just had to find his house and knock on the door. At first, most of his clients came from his church or the other Church of the Living God congregations. Just as the denomination itself came north from Alabama, Williams’ subjects sounded like they still had southern country dirt in their boot treads. The Coleman Family’s “Peace On Earth” has a twangy guitar and a stolid snare beat that would sound right at home on a Charlie Feathers side, but its sentiments come from Sunday school, not the roadhouse.

Double U sessions weren’t completely out of synch with their times, though. The open door policy meant that the Young Generation could check into Double U to record a Seeds knock-off, “Running Mod,” and music teacher Bobby Cook could cut a tight instrumental featuring a then-unknown guitarist named James Ulmer, later to grace the bands of Rashied Ali and Ornette Coleman. Sitar doubles the gritty rhythm guitar on Shirley Ann Lee’s version of “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and an assertive funk groove puts the Apostles of Music’ “Wade In The Water” on equal footing with contemporary pop, delivered with such passion that it almost doesn’t matter that the horns are more than a little out of tune. As is often the case with Numero’s collections, the line between inspired amateurism and a simple lack of professionalism is hopelessly smudged. But the predominance of sacred material sets it apart from most of the label’s regional R&B surveys, and the rustic enthusiasm that infuses many of the performances make it one of the most enjoyable to play from beginning to end.

By Bill Meyer

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