Elise Testone understands the power of soul music. It's at the heart of her act. Whether she's singing on stage with a funk-rock band or in a café with a jazzy combo, the Charleston-based vocalist and songwriter projects with deeply soulful style and emotion.
Testone and an ensemble of local talent get on the good foot this week as they revive the popular James Brown Dance Party at the Pour House. Testone has conducted these tribute shows several times over the last two years. Wednesday's get-together marks one of the most ambitious sets of James Brown-styled funk yet. Fans can hear some hot-tempo renditions of the Godfather of Soul's best stuff.
"We're mainly doing the hits that everyone knows and loves," says Testone. "It's an 18-song show. We recently added 'Funky Drummer' and 'Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing' to the list. It's a great mix."
A native of Kinnelon, New Jersey, she relocated to South Carolina after high school to attend Coastal Carolina University, later moving to the Holy City. Once she arrived in Charleston, Testone started gigging with a classy circle of young musicians in the local rock and jazz scene. She currently performs several weekly solo shows around Charleston and occasionally collaborates with local acts the Freeloaders and Slanguage.
Playing under the name Soul Power, Testone's team is anchored by the rhythm section of keyboardist Gerald Gregory, drummer Stuart White, bassist Ben Wells, and electric guitarist Lee Barbour.
"I always loved James Brown and the way he worked with his bands," says Testone. "He was such a great conductor, so I'm actually conducting this band a lot. They know all the parts and changes, but I signal when to change — sometimes with a yell or a screech."
A three-piece horn section features sax player Simon Harding, trombonist Jeremy Carter, and trumpeter Steve Berry. Two extra backup singers — Rachel Kate Gillon (of the Shaniqua Brown) and Vikki Matsis (a freelance music writer and songwriter) have been enlisted as well.
"To say that I'm really excited about this show would be an understatement," says White, who'll face pressure to drive each song with precision and feel. "This music is so much fun to play, and having the opportunity to sit down and really study it has been great for all of us."
Their hefty set includes a variety of fan faves — from Brown's early days in the early '60s with spiffy backing singers the Famous Flames to his more Afro-centric, hard-funk material with the JB's in the 1970s.
"Elise has done a great job of putting the group together," says White. "Although nobody is as funky as the JB's, I think we're going to do the music justice. All these guys are heavy hitters, and our number-one goal on stage is to play the songs just like James Brown's bands would. It's gonna be funky as shit."
Standouts in the list include "I Got the Feeling," "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," "Cold Sweat," "Super Bad," "It's a Man's World," and others. They've even embraced the late-era, 1985 hit "Living in America" (prominently featured in the film Rocky IV).
"Even though it may seem simple, there's a lot of complex interaction," Testone says. "On stage, everyone needs to look at each other and communicate. That's the main thing. A lot of bands today don't do that, but this thing is all about communication, working together, and spreading good vibes at the same time."
While Testone claims she won't be as strict with Soul Power on stage as Brown was with his groups (he was notorious for catching occasional flubs and miscues during performances and fining the individual musicians on the spot). She promises to re-enact some of Brown's flashy stage moves and dance steps, though.
"I really want to master that move where he knocks the mic stand over and flips it back up with his feet," she says. "That would make everything perfect."