Commanding the Local 506 stage a few weeks ago was a young guy named Bryan Cates, his voice traveling from rich rasp to falsetto in seconds and his guitar offering ringing, Bobby Womack-style fills. He was fronting a band out of Asheville named the Choosy Beggars that sounded like the '65 Rolling Stones--the Out of Our Heads period when they were covering Sam Cooke, Don Covay and Otis Redding--combined with "Sweet Virginia" Stones, with plenty of Marvin Gaye grooviness in the mix. It's a description that Cates and multi-instrumentalist/ace harmonizer Seth Kauffman give their seal of approval to, suggesting only that Smokey Robinson might be added alongside Marvin Gaye and that maybe something along the lines of "garage soul" would be easier to digest in these two-word-description days.
Cates and Kauffman were childhood friends, swapping tapes of Cooke, Drifters, and Stones songs that they'd recorded off the radio. Phase two of their musical development involved the blues. "In high school, we still liked that stuff (soul music) but got heavy into the, 'If it's not Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Fred McDowell, Jimmy Reed, John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, then it's not good' thing," recalls Kauffman. "We were really cynical, and all the songs we made up had to be super-authentic blues and super-dirty. We never felt we could do it enough justice."
In the late '90s, Cates and Kauffman began working under the moniker Brothers in the Kitchen, naming themselves after one of the late Guitar Gabriel's backing bands. Their first release, the raw, Delta blues-based See the Lover Right on Time, reflected the pair's high school tastes. In 1999, they released Bring It Back Alive, a rousing, astonishingly good gospel album recorded in the basement stairwell of a Baptist church.
After a couple of years as members of the Spikedrivers, the backing outfit for ex-Blue Rag Abe Reid, Cates and Kauffman changed the band's name to the Choosy Beggars and solidified the line-up with the addition of percussionist Aaron Sizemore and bassist Jonathan Poole, the latter imported from Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he played with various members of the Kimbrough family. Last year's self-titled release presented the Choosy Beggars in all of their rustic-soul glory: Thirteen Cates-penned originals, some with their roots showing--be it the Sam Cooke nod provided by the title of "Chain Gang" or the "Lean on Me" echoes in the epic centerpiece "The Time Is Drawing Near." Impressively, the songwriting is as well-informed as the grooves, with lines like "Tears that run all down/Soaking my pillowcase/I drank 'em all now, baby/They're bitter to the taste" reading like a snippet from the most yearning of deep soul ballads.
"We've never thought of soul music as a real category of music though," explains Kauffman. "There's just good music and bad music, and what's good to us usually turns out to be soul music. All the Motown R&B stuff gets our rocks off, and we feel we can do it justice."