Kool Kat of the Week: Genre-Bending, Vintage Rock ‘n’ Roll Slingin’, Nashville Soul Revivalist, Will Stewart of Willie and the Giant, has Rhythm, So Who Could Ask for Anything More?

Posted on: Oct 14th, 2014 By:

by Melanie Crew
Managing Editor/
Contributing Writer

L-R Grant Prettyman, Mac Kramer, Jon Poor, Will Stewart. Photo Credit: Abbey Grace Henley

L-R Grant Prettyman, Mac Kramer, Jon Poor, Will Stewart. Photo Credit: Abbey Grace Henley

Willie and the Giant, vintage rock ‘n’ roll slingers will be takin’ Atlanta by storm at Smith’s Olde Bar this Saturday, Oct. 18 on their tour through the South! Their newly pressed 7-inch vinyl, debuting two singles reeking of nostalgia, “Ain’t Gonna Wait” and “Poor Boy,” both cut and recorded live at the ever comfy and throwback studio, Welcome to 1979, will be up for grabs! So, rock out, get a whole lotta rhythm, shake a tail feather and don’t forget to snag up a 7-inch or two! Acoustic folk and blues duo, Alex & Todd are along for the rhythmic ride, so come on down for a rockin’ retro ruckus this Saturday night at Smith’s Olde Bar!

Willie and the Giant, musical sons of Nashville and Birmingham, is made up of Will Stewart (vocals/guitar), Jon “The Giant” Poor (vocals/guitar), Grant Prettyman (bass) and Mac Kramer (drums). Not only has the group released two new singles, but a self-titled album is on the horizon for 2015, with their brand new label, Cumberland Brothers Music, run by Nick Worley, the band’s producer and engineer.The new album will be filled to the brim with an explosion of sounds with nods to American roots rock, ‘70s funk and more! Willie and the Giant, bathing in the blood, sweat and tears of vintage rock ‘n’ roll, are groovin’ to the top and have no plans to slow the momentum any time soon!

ATLRetro caught up with Stewart, for a quick interview about Willie and the Giant’s headfirst dive into rock ‘n’ roll, their new singles and record deal with Cumberland Brothers Music and their aversion to music labels and genres.

And while you’re takin’ a gander at our little Q&A with Stewart, take a listen to Willie and the Giant’s “Ain’t Gonna Wait”/”Poor Boy” single, here.

ATLRetro: Can you tell folks how you found the “Giant” and the rest of your band-mates and what brought you guys together?

Will Stewart: I moved from Birmingham to Nashville in November 2012. By coincidence, Jon Poor (“Giant”) and Mac Kramer (drums) moved from Birmingham to Nashville at the exact same time (We didn’t know each other while living in Birmingham.) They moved into a house with my then-bandmate Nick (also a Birmingham transplant), and that’s how we eventually met. The rest, as they say, is history.

There’s got to be a story behind the band’s name. Can you fill our readers in?

Photo Credit: Jack Smith

Photo Credit: Jack Smith

My height is pretty average and Jon is 6’5″ on a good day. There’s a video of us playing a show a few years back in which the camera exaggerates his height and has the opposite effect for my height. We thought it was hilarious and jokingly said, “Willie and the Giant!” When we formed the band, that name immediately came to mind as the obvious choice for the band name. We also think the “Giant” is a nice metaphor for our monster rhythm section – it could go a few different ways I suppose.

Can you tell folks a little about your debut singles, “Ain’t Gonna Wait” and “Poor Boy,” released this past September?

These two tunes just go really well together. I wrote these when I first moved to Nashville in late 2012, before the formation of WATG but thought they would fit into the set we were building in the early months of the band. I was listening to a lot of songs from the early/mid-sixties Chess Records and Atlantic Records R&B catalogs and almost every song seemed to be about breaking-up or falling in/out of love. So these tunes were sort of born out of that period of listening – it’s a tip of the hat musically and lyrically to that era.   

L-R Mac Kramer, Will Stewart, Jon Poor, Grant Pettyman. Photo Credit: Sarah Sellari

L-R Mac Kramer, Will Stewart, Jon Poor, Grant Prettyman. Photo Credit: Sarah Sellari

Any special tricks on snagging the jazzy award-winning, The Chad Fisher Group, known for backing Greg Allman, and legendary groups, like The Temptations, The O’Jays and the Four Tops, for your debut singles?

Well, being from Birmingham, we had nothing but respect and admiration for Chad Fisher – he’s an institution in Birmingham and when we decided to use horns on these two tracks we knew immediately that we wanted Chad Fisher Horns to play and arrange the parts. 

How exciting to not only get offered a rockin’ record deal, but to be the first group to sign with the new label, Cumberland Brothers Music. Can you tell folks a little about how you were discovered?

It’s incredibly exciting and we’re all very grateful to be part of the Cumberland Brothers family. Nick Worley and I met in late 2012. We shared very similar tastes in music, so I approached him about recording some demos in early 2013. After that we continued working on other projects and some months passed. Later, I got a call one day from Nick saying that he was starting a label and wanted me to be a part of it. As a musician, it’s one of those things you always fantasize about, so when it actually happened I was just thrilled and very grateful for the opportunity.

L-R Mac Kramer, Will Stewart, Grant Pettyman, Jon Poor. Photo Credit: Abbey Grace Henley

L-R Mac Kramer, Will Stewart, Grant Prettyman, Jon Poor. Photo Credit: Abbey Grace Henley

How would you, as a musician, describe your band’s sound? Willie and the Giant has been described as being like, “M. Ward fronting a Memphis soul revue,” groove rock and a vintage soul revival. Was this intentional, or did it just happen?

People are going to throw around labels and genres pretty loosely, that’s just how it is. Obviously, our first two singles are our interpretation of early American R&B, so we’ve heard the “soul” thing quite a bit (not that that’s a bad thing). That said, our forthcoming full-length and live show is a smattering (word of the day!) of American roots and rock to British invasion to 70s funk to modern indie and pop. So I’m going to stop short of labeling and just let folks listen and decide for themselves. Ultimately we want to be a band whose music is very difficult to label.

Who are some of your favorite vintage performers and influences?

I’ll just keep this pre-1965: Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, The Impressions, Solomon Burke, Elvis, James Brown, the Stones, Dylan, Sam Cooke and on and on.

Can you tell our readers a little about your upcoming debut album and when they’ll be able to snag ‘em up?

We’re actually right in the middle of mixing the full-length and hoping for an early 2015 release. But again, it’s kind of hard to describe the sound because it covers a lot of ground. We’re just so excited that this is becoming a reality and can’t wait to share it with everyone. 

L-R Will Stewart, Grant Prettyman, Mac Kramer, Jon Poor.

L-R Will Stewart, Grant Prettyman, Mac Kramer, Jon Poor.

What brings you southern guys even further south, way down into Atlanta?

Our bassist (Grant) is from Atlanta, so we have some roots there. I have some close friends there and we always have a hell of a time playing in Atlanta – we’re looking forward to the show next week!

Any special plans for your show at Smith’s Olde Bar this Saturday?

Nothing too crazy, just playing a ton of new tunes. We’ll also have our newly pressed 7-inch vinyl and t-shirts in tow (We accept cash and all major credit cards!)

What’s next for Willie and the Giant?

We’re going to be hitting the road as much as possible for the next two to three months, leading up to the release of the debut full-length album. Playing live is what we get off on – so that’s always going to be front and center for us as a band.

All photographs are courtesy of Will Stewart/Willie and the Giant and used with permission.

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Atlanta Film Festival Retro Spotlight: THE SAPPHIRES

Posted on: Mar 19th, 2013 By:

Ed. Note: THE SAPPHIRES played Sunday at The Plaza, but with the Atlanta Film Festival running through Sun. March 24, there are still plenty of movies to come. Check out our top Retro picks here.

Retro Review by Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Wayne Blair’s THE SAPPHIRES is a true-life story about race, war, music and love, a tale about four Aborigine women who rose above hatred and tragedy to represent Australia to the world just months after the country began acknowledging their people’s rights. It’s an incredibly compelling story that’s unfortunately resulted in a less than compelling film that distills the events down to their most obvious, predictable bullet points. The movie carries a tune, but there’s no feeling in the song.

Late-60s race relations in Australia weren’t much better than in the United States, and in some respects, the situation in Australia was worse. A government policy (dubiously presented as protecting black culture) endorsed the outright theft of fair-skinned Aborigine children, who were then raised in the cities as whites—the so-called Stolen Generations. Two 1967 amendments to the Australian constitution granted Aborigines a bank of basic human rights, as up to that point, the official position of Australia, dating back to colonization, was that the people were part of the country’s “flora and fauna.” Unfortunately, there as here, progress was slow to change minds. Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell star as a quartet of rural Aborigine country and western singers struggling to find a white audience for their music in 1968. An Irish musician (BRIDESMAIDSChris O’Dowd, playing the Buttermaker role of the curmudgeonly drunk) discovers the girls at a talent show, and the group is soon off to Vietnam to entertain the American troops, but not before using a montage to learn the far sexier and, as the movie puts it, blacker sounds of soul music.

Audiences in love with soul will have the most fun with THE SAPPHIRES as the soundtrack of period tunes is by far the most engaging part of the film, and the production doesn’t skimp on period costumes and 60s flair. Unfortunately, as drama, the movie doesn’t offer very much. THE SAPPHIRES is built as a pleasant crowd-pleaser, coasting along on charm and good music, without a hint of dramatic urgency. Blair and Briggs thankfully ditch the band movie tropes, so there’s no big venue the girls are trying to reach, no agent to impress and no money needed to save the farm. But the filmmakers never find another story on which to hang the film’s characters and themes. Instead, once the gang arrives in Vietnam, the story splinters out into a series of romantic subplots that all play out more or less as you expect. Only once in the film do the girls brush up against the reality of war in Vietnam, and the rest of the time is spent romancing soldiers, singing songs and bickering about who’s in charge.

The Sapphires perform. Hopscotch Pictures, 2013.

Which is a shame, because the film does boast some fine performances from actors who deserved more to do. There’s no movie star, no Beyonce, hiding in the group of girls, and so they’re allowed to blend together as a true ensemble. If there is a standout, it’s Mailman, who plays the toughest of the women and the least willing to be bullied by a world that she sees as inherently unjust. She makes for an unlikely and refreshing romantic lead, and her pairing with O’Dowd is charming and believable. Also making an impression is Shari Sebbens as a person struggling with her racial identity after growing up in Melbourne as one of the stolen children, and her racially-charged tension with Mailman’s character provides an occasional dramatic spark.

In fact, THE SAPPHIRES is most affecting when it takes the time to explore the thorny racial issues of the 60s, including one touching scene that shows the reaction in Vietnam to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, a reminder that the path of racial justice here in the south had many observers around the world. Unfortunately, the film never quite finds its footing in the personal stories as it does in the grander themes. The performances and music are nice enough, but those looking for a deeper or more enriching experience may be disappointed. THE SAPPHIRES is all melody in search of a hook.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Down By The River: Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics Add Some Soul to a Good Cause

Posted on: May 3rd, 2012 By:

By James Kelly
Contributing Music Editor

The recent splash of international attention for retro soul music in the mainstream with artists such as Adele, Duffy, and Bruno Mars has been a welcome event. However, it should be no surprise that there has been a thriving deep soul underground that features artists who are just as good, if not better, than a lot of the major label acts. For about five years Atlanta has been the home for the amazing Soulphonics and Ruby Velle. This coming Friday they are performing at the 16th annual River Revival, a fundraiser for Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. The event is May 4 at Park Tavern in Piedmont Park starting at 6:30 p.m. and also featuring Burnt Bacon, Julia Haltigan and Ben Sollee.

ATLRetro.com caught up with the lovely Miss Velle this week, and she was kind enough to answer a lot of questions. We officially declare Ruby Velle (and the Soulphonics) the Kool Kats of the Week.

ATLRetro: What inspired you to become a singer, and how did you find your “voice” in such a commercially underappreciated genre?

Ruby Velle: I’ve been singing since I was 8, with early hand-me-down inspiration from my aunt and uncles musical influences. They were constantly providing me with vinyl listening parties, live jams with friends and creating an environment where I could perform at a young age. They were great friends with the late Luther Allison, [an] amazing blues artist.

Growing older, my parents and friends along the way were all very into soul, so I soaked up the greats and some of the lesser known artists through auditory osmosis. However, I don’t see the genre itself as commercially under-appreciated; it just will never gross as much as other genres such as pop or country. But there are some great acts out there making a good living from playing soul. I think the commercial factor is less relevant in the genre than the emotion portrayed in the music itself.

How and when did you and the Soulphonics end up in Atlanta, and why?

I had just graduated from college and wanted to study graphic design in Atlanta because I knew it was a career that could be useful to being a recording artist. The band’s creator, Spencer Garn (also the band’s leader, keyboardist, co-writer, producer and engineer), wanted to expose our music to a new audience, as we had a pretty good hold on the market in Florida. I moved, then Spencer, then Scott Clayton, the original guitarist/co-writer.  Atlanta seemed like a great next step and has proven to be a great place to call home. Our music has been able to evolve here into something Atlantans are proud to call their own, and since we’ve been here we have been voted Atlanta’s Best Soul Band by Creative Loafing, two years in a row! So Atlanta has quickly become home to us.

You have often mentioned Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding as big early influences, who are some of your favorite contemporary artists, and why?

Oooo… there’s such a long list. I always say my music is a collection of inspirations from all types of artists and genres, so it’s hard to just name a few. The biggest influences for songwriting lyrics have been Paul Simon, Fiona Apple and even Ani DiFranco. These artists are storytellers and their writings speak to me in a deeper more intellectual way. That is what I aim to do with the soul music we’ve been creating. Sure, anyone can write a soul ballad, but can it be deep and introspective? Can soul music make you move and make you think? I believe the answer is yes. I think my need to offer a new take on soulful lyrics is a result of the influences from these writers.

As far as musical influences that are contemporary, I’ve really been enjoying Alex Clare’s music lately. He just released his album to the states; he is originally from the UK. I love his soulful voice, and I can tell that he, like me, has been pulling pieces of styles, inflections, and vibe from the greats, but he makes it his own. I recommend his album because it mixes genres well with some soul, electro and dub-step (with credit to Diplo and members of Major Lazer). I think the melding of these genres is intoxicating.

Lastly, as far as contemporary artists go it doesn’t get much better for me than the Black Keys. I really admire Dan Auerbach’s talent and his ability to carry the torch for the blues and blues rock. I’m always impressed by whatever they put out, so soulful and simply genius.

What do you think brought about the re-emergence of deep soul and classic R&B over the last several years? 

Well, I’m glad you said “re-emergence” instead of “resurrection” because I hold the belief that soul never really died; it’s just become an evolving genre because the context has shifted so much from the days it originated.  I think more than anything people were craving that old sound made by new artists, so new interpretations have been born  a la Sharon Jones & The DapKings, Amy Winehouse, Adele and The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker. I’m grateful these artists have fueled the re-emergence because we have been doing soul music for almost 10 years as a underground act. It’s great to know that the genre itself has growing appeal to all ages on a wider scale.

What sort of crowd comes to see Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics? Does the age range surprise you?

ALL TYPES and ALL AGES. I’ve seen gay, straight, black, white, Indian, Chinese – you name it, they have been in the front row dancing till the last song ends. I’m very fortunate that our music resonates with all ages; it really has a way of bringing the community together when we play shows or benefit festivals. I’m not particularly surprised because the music is about emotion and feeling. And everyone of all ages can relate to certain emotions.

How challenging is it to maintain a band and keep things fresh and exciting in the Atlanta music scene?

Well, maintaining an eight-piece band can be hectic and can bring you to your knees if you begin to focus on logistically how hard it is, but I certainly can’t take credit for great management to date. We’ve become a tight knit team of multi-taskers and multi-talented folk. Spencer Garn, for example, manages the band, owns a record label [Element Records], and also records and mixes our music. I’ve had the band as my graphic design client for the past seven years, creating merch and posters to album art and vinyl labels. I also work as a creative director with stylists and designers, such as Bill Hallman, to maintain our dapper image and keep up looking sharp. Our guitar player and co-writer Scott Clayton is also an expert with sound equipment and repeatedly has the band sounding great. I’m very fortunate to work with some amazing people that believe in what we do.

In the Atlanta music scene, if you did not put out a song yesterday, you are pretty much obsolete. You have to really create here on a large scale and frequently to be recognized. I think Atlanta has prepared us well to deliver on a larger scale. Luckily we’ve been playing shows in Atlanta for the last five years at a pretty constant rate so we are seeing some of the fruits of that labor. The fans here, though, are incredibly supportive, more so than I’ve seen anywhere else. Sometimes I wish they would let go, lose it all and dance a bit more, but I came from a hippie town in Florida so it’s been a little adjustment for me to see the more refined fans here.

You and the band have put out a few great singles, which have whetted the appetites of your fans. Was this a strategic plan, or simply a business decision?

This has been a little of both. Just internally, we’ve had some of these songs written and recorded for a while, but we are very particular about what gets heard when. We love to build suspense around our releases, which is why we’ve been putting out a steady stream of singles since 2010. Our fans are losing their minds in anticipation of the album, and I’d like to think the singles have had something to do with that hype.  We are just as excited for the release of our debut album IT’S ABOUT TIME.

When will we finally see a full-length recording of the band?

This Summer we will FINALLY release the full-length debut album. Keep an eye out for our album release party in early August. The street date for the release will be around July 24. And we will party till the sun comes up. It’s been a very long road to put out the album, but we are pleased with it and are looking forward to the reviews and press to help it grow legs.

You are playing a benefit for the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeepers this coming weekend, so how important are the environment and other social causes to you?

Environmental and civil rights issues are a huge cornerstone for the Soulphonics and myself. A lot of the lyrics in our songs are about inspiring change, in ourselves as well as in others. We are just a group of folk that feel a need to use our musical influence to bring about change. In addition to working with the Riverkeepers to promote their benefit, we will be working with a number of nonprofit organizations dealing with sustainability, economic recovery in struggling regions and environmental causes. Although some of these plans are just getting going, we are partnering with CTC International in Kenya on some sustainability efforts for the communities there. We’ve also made an impact here in Atlanta with benefit shows and song donations for the Atlanta Humane Society and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, and are always looking for more opportunities to promote social and environmental causes.

What does the future hold for Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics?

Positive change on a mass scale. With the release of the album and planning a tour, we will be able to bring our music to more ears than ever before. We are thrilled to be on the road soon touring and spreading the word about this little soul outfit with a big sound from Atlanta. There is a lot going on over the next year, but I look forward to being more involved in social causes as well as continuing to write for the follow-up album. IT’S ABOUT TIME chronicles our struggles and setbacks since we were established in 2007, but now that it’s releasing soon I guarantee there is no stopping this soul machine. The future, for all of us, is as bright as we think it to be.

All photos courtesy of Element Records and Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics and used with permission. For more information and to purchase tickets for the River Revival on May 4 at Park Tavern, go to their website at: https://www.xorbia.com/e/ucr/rr2012

Category: Kool Kat of the Week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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