1. URAL THOMAS & THE PAIN
SOUNDS LIKE: A delayed radio transmission from an alternate version of the ’60s, where the world’s greatest soul man is from Portland and Hitsville USA is made out of recycled plywood.
It’s a damp Sunday afternoon in early May, and church is most definitely in service at the House of Entertainment.
A small but loyal parish is gathered in the appropriately nicknamed home of Ural Thomas, where, for the last 40 years, the singer and son of a preacher man has conducted an ongoing sermon on the religion of blues, R&B, rock ’n’ roll and, especially, soul. Every week going back to the late ’60s, when he moved in behind the ReBuilding Center on North Mississippi Avenue, Thomas has opened the sliding glass door leading to his charmingly ramshackle practice space, inviting the public for jam sessions that start around 1 pm and, when things get really cooking, can extend past sundown.
In the last year, Thomas, a powerhouse performer who once shared stages with James Brown, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder, has gone from being an artifact in a record collector’s crate to a local living legend, headlining sold-out gigs at Doug Fir Lounge and Mississippi Studios with his young backing band, the Pain. But this is still where you can find the 73-year-old most Sundays, calling out chords from behind a silver Casio keyboard like an evangelist referencing Bible verses.
“Follow me, don’t lead me!” shouts Thomas, dressed in a buttoned black shirt, warmups and knit cap, directing the six musicians surrounding him through a bluesy waltz. In comparison to the polished nine-piece soul orchestra that now supports him live, this slapdash group—two guitarists, a drummer, a slap-happy bassist, a tin-whistle player and the most enthusiastic egg-shaker you’ll ever meet—is rough to the point of chafing.
But then, it fits the surroundings. According to Thomas, after his house burned down in the ’70s, he rebuilt it himself using recycled materials. The place looks like it’s being held together by plywood, old carpets and a lot of staples and glue. Decorations appear to have been grabbed blindly from a Goodwill bin: a stuffed Halloween spider; a velvet painting of Napoleon; posters of Bo Diddley, and Chunk and Sloth from The Goonies; magazine cutouts of Martin Luther King Jr., New Kids on the Block, a monkey in a Superman costume and Tupac with a pompadour drawn on his head. As the band stutters through Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” and Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways,” it feels like the vibrations are going to cause the roof to cave in.
At a glance, Thomas is a homegrown version of Charles Bradley or Sharon Jones, once obscure singers who, thanks to younger admirers, have experienced late-career resurgences. In truth, Thomas might be closer to Portland punk heroes Fred and Toody Cole: someone who insulated himself from the harsh unfairness of the world by building his own.
“A cool thing about Ural that sort of puts him in the tradition of Portland is, he’s been DIY since day one,” says Eric Isaacson, owner of Mississippi Records, who discovered Thomas 11 years ago when a woman brought in a record Thomas self-recorded with local children in the ’60s. “He was just sort of doing it himself. He made his cracks at trying to make it in the big time and be on major labels, but it never fazed him when he didn’t make it in that world.”
“I don’t really feel like I missed anything in life,” says Thomas, sitting with drummer Scott Magee and Ben Darwish, the Pain’s music director and keyboardist, in a quieter moment at the House of Entertainment. “Even the rough times, I can’t say they’re really bad because I’ve learned something from every experience I’ve ever had. And I hope I’ve given something back along the way. I never expected anything from anyone except myself.”
In the decades after he quit the music industry and returned to the neighborhood he grew up in, Thomas kept a low profile. He’d poke his head out on occasion—filming a segment for the Portland music website Into the Woods, performing at an exhibition for the Oregon Historical Society, appearing in a documentary about Seattle funk band Wheedle’s Groove—but for the most part, only his jam buddies knew he was even still in town. And so, when Magee called to propose dusting off some of Thomas’ old material, neither could believe the other was actually on the line.
“I still, at times, can’t believe it, as far as how lucky I feel,” Magee says.
A few years ago, the 40-year-old Magee, previously a member of indie-folk acts Loch Lomond and Y La Bamba, became obsessed with soul. He began collecting 45 rpm singles and spinning them around town as DJ Cooky Parker. “Push ’Em Up,” a wild dance tune Thomas recorded with his original doo-wop group, the Monterays, found its way into Magee’s rotation—a gift from Isaacson, who reissued two rare Thomas singles on his label in 2011. When Magee started talking in vain about starting an act that would reinterpret those old tunes live, Isaacson saw an opportunity.
“I felt like Ural deserved to have a really tight band that would complement his vocal style,” Isaacson says. “I thought Scott was a tasteful enough guy, and motivated and ambitious enough to put it together. So I gently nudged him to give Ural a call.”
A month later, Magee, Darwish and Thomas, along with bassist Eric Hedford and guitarist Brent Martins, were in a rehearsal room together. “We were all just standing there, like, ‘Do we just play the song?’” Magee says. He counted off into “Pain Is the Name of Your Game,” a sweeping ballad Thomas released in 1967, sans the recorded version’s big horns and backing vocals. “Ural came in on the first verse, and it was really powerful,” Magee says. “Within seconds, in my brain, I’m like, ‘We’re good.’ If we can hold it together and if Ural wants to do it, this is going to be fantastic.”
“I was like, ‘I sure hope this works,’” Thomas recalls of that initial session. “But I just felt comfortable. I was ready to roll.”
Darwish and Magee set about fleshing out the band, recruiting a three-piece horn section and two backup singers, while Magee developed a set centered on other Thomas originals—funky foot-stomper “Can You Dig It?”, the buoyantly blissful “I’m a Whole New Thing”—and a few of his favorite deep cuts from other artists. After a few warm-up gigs, the Pain had its official coming-out party at Doug Fir Lounge in November. The response was rapturous. It wasn’t just how authentic the band sounded or the palpable joy Thomas exuded onstage. It was the revelation that, at one point in time, the whitest city in America not only had soul but bred it, too.
“A guy like Ural wouldn’t matter as much in Chicago or Memphis or New Orleans,” Magee says. “There’s a lot more people, even of his age, who are amazing performers, and down there, it’s just kind of, like, expected. I feel we have this chance to seem somehow fresh, which is exciting for all of us to be part of musically, because it’s not a sound we’ve had a chance to do here.”
The excitement over the Pain has transcended Thomas’ rediscovery. An “ecosystem,” as Magee calls it, has sprung up around the group, of artists wanting to engage with a history it never knew existed. At the Pain’s return engagement at Doug Fir in April, the Decemberists’ Chris Funk sat in on guitar. DJ Rev Shines, of hip-hop mainstays Lifesavas, spun records. Shirley Nanette, another singer from Portland’s past, made a cameo appearance, and just about brought the place down. The constellation of talent surrounding the group is beginning to resemble Daptone Records, the New York soul revivalists responsible for rescuing several artists from the margins of history. All that’s missing is an actual record. But that’s coming, too. Eventually.
“I’m interested in having the workload increase,” Magee says. “I’d like to see everyone doubling down on the energy level this next year. Maybe an album can come out within two years. So that in 2016, people won’t be like, ‘Yeah, I remember that band, Ural Thomas and the Pain. They were cool.’ I want it to thrive. Because Ural, he deserves that.”
Thomas corrects him: “I think we all deserve it.” MATTHEW SINGER.