[GARAGE SOUL] Soul doesn’t come naturally to the lily-white Northwest. In the case of Brownish Black’s M.D. Sharbatz, though, it wasn’t until he moved to Portland, oddly enough, that the singer-guitarist discovered his inner James Brown. Even stranger, the guy came here from Detroit. Growing up in the cradle of Motown, Sharbatz played in all kinds of bands—raging hardcore, moody post-punk, plaintive alt-country—but he never thought to try his hand at R&B, arguably his hometown’s greatest cultural export. Then, not long after relocating to the Rose City four years ago, he sat down to play guitar, and the funk just began to flow out of him. It’s as if the ghosts of Hitsville USA planted a seed in his subconscious that took decades to blossom.
“It could’ve just been waiting until I got to the age of 30 to come out,” says Sharbatz, sitting in his spacious Northwest Portland apartment, next to a cabinet now stuffed with old soul records. Within months of that revelation, Sharbatz began to assemble Brownish Black, a band rooted in the horn blasts and hotfoot rhythms of vintage ’70s soul. But even as he dove into his new obsession, Sharbatz made sure not to clip his punk roots completely. “I think that’s where a lot of the grittiness of our band comes from,” he says. “I need hard music, one way or another.”
Brownish Black came together in bits and pieces. After fixing his new musical path, Sharbatz recruited drummer Ethan Boardman, then brought in bassist Mub Fractal. Eventually, the band added a three-piece brass section.
But the group didn’t really come to full flower until the addition of singer Vicki Porter. Unlike Sharbatz, Porter, a Portland native, was raised on soul music. A belter in the Aretha Franklin mold, she grew up mimicking the vocal histrionics of her mother’s favorite male balladeers, like the Stylistics and Isaac Hayes. Outside of a few one-off recording sessions, though, she hadn’t sung much in public until Fractal, whom she met in a class at Portland Community College, invited her to band practice. “I was a little nervous, because I hadn’t done that in a long time,” Porter says. Once she took the mic, though, it became clear who needed to impress whom. “We knew we had to step it up after that,” Sharbatz says.
In the years since, Brownish Black has worked on perfecting—though not refining—a sound that eschews the pop elegance of Motown in favor of the rusty-strings guitar stabs and gutbucket hollering associated with Berry Gordy’s Southern rival, Stax. The band released an EP in 2011 and, this week, a vinyl 45, and has developed a live show far wilder than the stale, faux-soul revues of other revivalists. Playing in Portland has been an uphill climb, however. In a city notorious for its stationary crowds, the band says it’s often walked onstage at local clubs to confront a sea of confused, unmoving faces. Little by little, though, audiences are becoming more willing to match the group’s energy.
“Even if just a few people get up and dance,” Porter says, “that means somebody’s getting it.”
SEE IT: Brownish Black plays White Eagle Saloon, 836 N Russell St., on Friday, Oct. 12. 9:30 pm. $8. 21+.