HIGH FREQUENCIES: The XL’s are set to burn down the house
Bill Sheffield gets the band back together for his birthday celebration.
“I’m ready to see heaven. I’m running up the white flag!” Bill Sheffield jokes when asked how he’s doing. But nothing is further from the truth for one of the cornerstones of the Atlanta blues scene for over 40 years. His performance with the XL’s at the Northside Tavern last July was a testament to how far he’s come, and how much more he has to give, as a blues singer, a soul singer, in his prime. Fronting the reunited XL’s that hot summer night, Sheffield was on fire, propelled by the burning, white hot band he first formed in Atlanta in the early ’80s.
At the height of their popularity, the XL’s — Sheffield with guitarist Rick Callahan, bassist Van Miller, and drummer Peter Chakales — were one of the most well-established bands on the touring circuit, certainly hometown favorites. Playing up and down the east coast, “from New York to Key West,” the singer recalls, headlining and opening for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Junior Walker and the Allstars, Jaco Pastorius, and B.B. King. Despite the constant touring and exposure to appreciative crowds, the XL’s disbanded, like Sheffield’s prior bands the East Side Blues Band and Cool Breeze, when the jump to the mainstream eluded them.
Embarking on a solo career, Sheffield finally established himself as a recording artist, concentrating on writing his own blues-inspired songs, as well as proving himself as a live performer, with tours that found him onstage in the U.K. and throughout Europe.
The XL’s reunited for a heralded gig opening up for Tinsley Ellis at the Variety Playhouse four or five years ago, but, other than that, their performances have been few and far between.
The Variety Playhouse gig showed what they were capable of in a concert setting, and why they were so popular as a working unit. But it was at the Northside Tavern that found the reunited players in their element, up close and personal with the audience on the crowded dance floor who were moving and grooving to their soulful, seductive rhythms and blues.
For the XL’s return to the Northside this Friday night (Oct. 13), they’ll be joined by the band’s first guitarist, Tom Benson, who preceded Callahan. That they’re playing so soon after their last gig is a birthday present to Sheffield from the Northside Tavern’s Ellyn Webb, proprietor of the club for 30 years, who won her fight with cancer in May.
“Ellyn booked this date with me before she passed away,” says Sheffield, who celebrated his birthday Oct. 12. The show is billed on the Northside’s website as “Bill Sheffield’s Birthday Party.” “She wanted to make sure we had another birthday gig down there.”
It’s Webb’s death that prompted Sheffield to bring the XLs back together for this show — and the one last July.
“Since Ellyn died, I feel like that place has got to earn its keep," Sheffield says. "It’s got to keep things on the page that work, if it’s going to survive. I’ve been doing the Northside for a long time, and for the last five years, I’ve been taking my acoustic act in there. The simple fact is, it’s not the right act for that room. It’s too noisy there on weekends, they’re not a listening crowd at all, they’re a responding crowd. And I felt that the XL’s is the best I have to offer to satisfy the crowd that’s there. You have to force feed ‘em a little bit down there. And the band is perfect for it, you know, because we’re just all groove and all dance. That’s all that band ever was — a really good dance band.”
A video posted on Facebook exemplifies just that. It was during the first set the band started their soulful rendition of “To Sir, With Love.” As if on cue, a couple walks into the bar and immediately starts dancing to the song. The shoot couldn’t have been choreographed any better.
Although Sheffield hasn’t seen the video, “I’ve been staying off Facebook because I piss so many people off,” he remembers the scene well.
“They just started dancing! They were crazy, man. You know, those people didn’t know shit about the XL’s, they just dug what they were hearing. That meant a lot to me. They were out … I was watching that guy … they were in another place altogether. It was a very fun night. I hope to have another one like that.”
Guitarist Callahan agrees with Sheffield’s assessment. At the last Northside gig, he not only got to stretch out with his former bandmates, but he got to share guitar duties onstage with his son, Chris Callahan, himself an accomplished musician. This Friday night, with the younger Callahan busy with his band the Vinyl Suns, the XL’s had the chance to invite original guitarist Benson back to the fold.
“Tom is a wonderful player,” Callahan notes, “as anyone who remembers his work with the band can attest. It will be a treat to share the stage with him. Of course, Bill continues to impress after all the years with his stage presence, energy and musicianship.”
Chakales’ enthusiasm for Sheffield, and backing him in the XL’s, is more unbridled. “Bill is just magnificent,” the drummer says, admitting, “I was shocked at how many people came out” for the band’s last gig. “And not only that, they like the vibe. They were right up front. He’s great. Nobody emotes the vibe that he does.They just can’t do it. It doesn’t matter if his voice is on or not, his body is moving and you feel it, you know? I’ve always thought he was so gifted. And any time I can be around, or he wants something, I’m there to do it. When you’re a drummer, that shit, it’s like smoking … you want it again. Nobody is as good as him.”
Sheffield says “such gigging takes its toll” and, after this weekend, he’s back to his solo gigs. In addition to bookings at various Atlanta blues clubs, he’s got a number of once-a-month residencies: the Hard Rock Cafe, a place in Woodstock called the Century House Tavern, and Bob-Ba-Q in Jasper. “Just restaurant gigs,” he admits. “I like it, you know? It’s no pressure. And, I feel like, occasionally, I’ll connect with somebody. I’ll play a song they haven’t heard in a long time, or haven’t heard played ever, and it means something to them.
“I’ve developed this thing, this harmonica and guitar thing,” he says of his stylized playing, “and it’s a statement of my own, man. People want to play harp like Little Walter, I want to play like Toots Thielemans.”
Sheffield is the real deal — and, an Atlanta treasure.
Box Office Bingo dept. … Lucy Freas, the Atlanta concert promoter who got her start working for the House of Blues, then Concert/Southern Promotions before co-founding Rival Entertainment with Josh Attenucci, started her new job this week. While keeping her position as senior talent buyer and partner at Rival, she is now Director of Programming at the Fabulous Fox Theater, a position tailor-made for her at the city’s landmark theater. With years of procuring talent for Music Midtown, shows at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park and, most recently, the Project Pabst festival in East Atlanta Village under her belt, Freas is sure to make the Fox a force to be reckoned with in Atlanta’s highly-competitive concert market, where Live Nation, AEG, Zero Mile, Bowery South, OK Productions, and many others already vie for your concert dollars. Early in her career, when Freas went by her maiden name, Lawler, I always used to get it confused with Lawless, the name of the actress who portrayed Xena on the fantasy television series. With her latest career move, perhaps Freas (née Lawler) has some Warrior Princess superpowers of her own!
And Counting dept. … Last week drummer Yonrico Scott celebrated his birthday not once, but twice. First was at party for the the opening of his art exhibit, “October Dreams,” at Art-Haus Grant Park, where his work will be on display through Oct. 31. The second celebration was the following night, when he played with Geoff Achison, John Marsh, and Bryan Hall at the Vista Room where, of course, the band, with Charlie Wooton joining in, jammed on the Col. Bruce Hampton classic, “Basically Frightened.” This Friday, the Vista Room celebrates its first anniversary with a non-stop dance party propelled by Bogey & the Viceroy. Expect Big Mike Geier to drop by.
Friday will be a busy night. In addition to music provided by the Wasted Potential Brass Band, the Elliott Street Pub presents its last Iron Pour of the season. It will also be the last iron pour for the furnace, as they are building a new one that they hope to have ready for next season.
Writer James Kelly, better known to music fans as Slim Chance, gives back to the local community this Sat., Oct. 14, with another record and CD fundraiser, this one benefitting Greg Germani and Marty “The Plumber” Nolan. A portion of the proceeds are also earmarked for the people of Puerto Rico. Kelly has accumulated hundreds of titles from friends, other musicians, and, by scouring thrift shops throughout the south. This sale will also include a few boxes of CDs from the collection of the late Russ Devault, long-time music reviewer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, donated by Jennifer Rowlett Devault.
With this year marking the 50th anniversary of the release of the Velvet Underground & Nico’s landmark, self-titled debut album, nicknamed “The Banana Album” because of Andy Warhol’s striking peel-able yellow banana cover, John Cale presents a tribute to the work next month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. For those not planning to make the trip north, the group Cult Candy presents its own Exploding Plastic Inevitable happening in the Little Vinyl Lounge at the Star Bar Sat., Oct. 14. Featuring 16mm film installations, a light show, DJ Vikkie Vaden, Black Cat Rising channeling the Velvet Underground, and, yes, silver clouds (for what would a Factory-themed event be without them!), it should be a good chance for you to “blow your mind.”
Upcoming … In case you don’t know, the original line-up of the Dixie Dregs — Rod Morgenstein, Andy West, Allen Sloan, Steve Davidowski, and Steve Morse — are reuniting for a tour in March of next year. Tickets for the Atlanta date, March 3 at the Center Stage, have already sold out. Having not toured, and certainly not with the Free Fall-era line-up, in decades, it's no surprise. … Speaking of exceptional musicianship, guitarist Kaki King returns home Sat., March 10, at the Robert Ferst Center for the Performing Arts on the Georgia Tech campus. The Atlanta-born guitarist is touring in support of her just released, Live At Berklee, which finds her with the Porta Girevole Chamber Orchestra, re-working some of her earlier compositions.