It's a romance-novel cliché to say someone lights up the room, but there's no other way to describe the wattage Sharon Jones emanated strutting across the Apollo Theater stage in New York City in a bright purple frill-covered dress last month.
A dynamic singer who's compared to James Brown more often than anyone since Prince -- and who stands equal to Prince's 5 feet -- Jones seemed to feed off the Apollo's history like a lion on a steak. The Harlem landmark is, of course, where Brown made his seminal "Live at the Apollo." Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were also tied to the Harlem landmark early on. It's the kind of fabled venue where performers give it their all and leave everything behind.
At 54, Jones has shed quite a past. She has been a prison guard, dental assistant, Macy's clerk and wedding singer. She was doing the latter work in 1996 when she unexpectedly came across a group of young white hipster musicians with an affinity for old soul music. They called themselves the Dap-Kings and operated their own studio/label out of Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, and they were literally the answer to Jones' prayers.
"In Bushwick, at the studio, is where the connection happened," said Jones. "I grew up with a lot of the classic stuff that these guys were nuts for and collecting. They're crazy collectors of 45s and albums. So when I started with them, it was, 'Oh, yeah, I remember this song.'"
Fourteen years later, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have issued four progressively better albums, topped off by the new and meaningfully titled "I Learned the Hard Way."
"We take a lot of pride in what we've accomplished," she said. "We like seeing younger people trying to start their own label and be independent and do R&B and soul. We're digging up some history here and moving into the future."
Nothing on record can match their magic onstage, though.
I've never seen a performer go for broke the way Jones did at the Apollo. She shimmied and shook nonstop and gregariously played to the crowd without losing any of the rib-vibrating power in her voice. Onstage, Jones physically exudes and embodies the soul in her band's emotional soul music, especially in the hard-knock songs from the new album. During the sweltering "She Ain't a Child No More," she kicked the air and stomped the stage. During "Mama Don't Like My Man," she swooned and welled up like a lost girl. Jones explained afterward, "Those guys write the songs, but I feel like they write them for me. The songs run deep."
Even if she and the band are only half as plugged in for Saturday's Current-sponsored Rock the Garden concert -- Jones did say, "We love those NPR stations; they were the first to catch on" -- MGMT-adoring Current listeners are still in for an awakening.