Looking down from the Pour House balcony, it was a sight to behold. As Percy Sledge, backed by Charlotte-based show band the Spontanes, broke into "When a Man Loves a Woman," more than half the crowd wandered onto the floor in pairs to slow dance. A quick scan placed the age range from early 20s to early 60s, meaning that a few might have danced to the song when it first came out in 1966, while others were still a good 15 years from being born at the time. "When a Man Loves a Woman" is a true monument of Southern soul, standing alongside the likes of James Carr's "The Dark End of the Street," Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" and Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember" to define a sound that found Saturday night R&B and country meeting Sunday morning gospel. But Percy Sledge has even more powerful songs in his catalog, and he visited a lot of them that night in Raleigh, most notably "Take Time to Know Her," "It Tears Me Up" and "Out of Left Field" (those last two by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, the Lennon and McCartney, as far as songwriting partnerships go, of Southern soul).
All of those songs deal with relationships, and three nights earlier I had been at Local 506 in Chapel Hill listening to a band offer another generation's take on the pleasures and perils of romance. The Breakup Society from western Pennsylvania were part of an outstanding six-act bill at night two of Sparklefest, and they blasted through songs from their latest record James at 35, a pop-heading-to-punk concept album about women and how men struggle to find them and then seem to have no problem losing them. (What'd you expect? Their name isn't the Together Forever Society.) For them, it's "Every girl I ever had a crush on/Had a bigger crush on you, Robin Zander." For Mr. Sledge, "I see you walk with him/I see you talk to him/It tears me up." Different eras, different words, same issue: girl problems.
At 44, I'm right in the middle: a decade too young to have taken to the floor for "When a Man Loves a Woman" at a late-'60s high school dance, and a decade past my soul-searching mid-30s. Whether it was this betwixt ground on which I was standing or something else, both Percy Sledge and the Breakup Society carried me away. I stood there grinning like Dylan on the cover of Desire and swaying the sway of the arrhythmic. I was even inspired to accost Breakup Society leader Ed Masley at the end of their set with a breathless mini-monologue that went something like "Man that was great I've been playing the hell out of James at 35 I wish you could have played longer man that was great."
That's why I love music. It can make people slow dance in a nightclub, and it can drive relatively mature people to blather. And perhaps only in the music world does it make perfect sense for a no-spring-chicken soul icon/Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from Baton Rouge and four 30-somethings from Pittsburgh to live on the same page.