Reverend Tall Tree & the Blackstrap Brothers testify at Harvelle’s on Friday night
By Bliss Bowen
When Chris Pierce opens his mouth onstage to sing, he can have a galvanizing effect on audiences, particularly if they’ve first been lulled by the soft-spoken tones of his speech.
Casually commanding the stage and listeners’ attention, he digs into the emotional heart of his songs — a hummable synthesis of soul, R&B and singer-songwriter pop — with a voice whose grain and finely calibrated force echo old-school soul forebears like Otis Redding and O.V. Wright.
When Pierce fronts one of his musical side projects, Reverend Tall Tree, he burrows even deeper into his blues roots.
“It’s sort of an alter ego,” he explains while driving to soundcheck for a Reverend Tall Tree show in Westlake. “I am an actual [nondenominational] reverend; I’m actually ordained. I’ve done a bunch of funerals over the years. I was given the name Tall Tree when I was young by a Native American elder.”
Pierce started performing as Reverend Tall Tree after a bartender at a neighborhood club tipped him off that they were searching for a blues band. Since he has “always played songs that are in the roots of blues and American music,” throwing together a blues combo felt natural.
“I called up three of the heaviest hitters I know in town: Chris Lovejoy (or ‘Professor Lovejoy’) on drums, Trevor Menear (‘Ol’ T Parker’) on guitar, and Dylan Cooper (‘Dr. Cooper’) on upright bass. And here we are three years later,”
The sharp-suited foursome, who return to Harvelle’s on Friday, churn out earthy, stomping tunes in the style of pre-WWII and midcentury blues. Their initial repertoire of blues chestnuts is now dominated by new original material as well as rearrangements of Pierce songs like “Static Trampoline” that grind more dirt into the grooves.
Last week Pierce also celebrated the release of “War & Pierce,” an EP he made with Sunny War that features a soulful and surprisingly lyric-driven reinvention of Iggy Pop’s “Search and Destroy.” And he remains active with the wine label he and a business partner launched in 2005, Ledbetter Wines, named in part after one of Pierce’s favorite blues artists, Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly.
Such consistent forward momentum is vital to an artist’s career, a fact Pierce learned while still in his teens. After overcoming a bout with otosclerosis that left him partially deaf, the Southern California native won an Ella Fitzgerald scholarship to study jazz at USC.
School was followed by recording — he’s released half a dozen albums over the past decade — touring and opening shows for Al Green, Beth Hart, B.B. King, Seal and Toots & the Maytals, among others. His songs have been heard on TV shows such as “Dawson’s Creek,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “True Blood” — for the latter, he sang an Archie Roach song over a scene featuring his wife, actress Tara Buck.
Lately Pierce has been devoting himself to a dream project: recording an album in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with original members of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, the Swampers.
“I had the honor of getting to go down there and record with them through a dear old friend of mine, Dave Resnick. One day I got a call from him and he said, ‘I just saw this Muscle Shoals movie, and I know most of these guys, and I think they need to meet you and hear you sing, and I think you need to play with them. Why don’t we try to make this happen?’
“I said, ‘Don’t threaten me with a good time.’”
Within a few months, Pierce says, they were in Muscle Shoals, recording six songs in three days.
“I just tracked live with the rhythm section the first day; we did about two takes of each song,” he recalls. “The second day the Muscle Shoals horns came in with two of the original members, Charlie Rose and Harvey Thompson. And on the third day, the Shoals Sisters background singers came in and did their thing. We used the same formula on the second round in January; we did six more tracks the exact same way. We’re going to mix and master next month and try to get it out there by late spring.”
Unlike Pierce’s other solo releases, the album will be under his name “featuring” the Swampers — and it will be comprised entirely of 1960s soul covers. “A lot are very rare, some you might have heard,” he says. “Most of these guys played on the original recordings. We’re not releasing any of the titles yet. But I can tell you there’s a Solomon Burke tune, a Wilson Pickett tune, an Al Green tune and a Clarence Carter tune.”
He advances a rough mix from the sessions. Sure enough, it has the easy, greasy groove and ebullient spirit of classic ’60s soul. More importantly, it offers a sense of release and haven. That is what Pierce has long found in music, and what he strives to offer to others through his own work.
Once the Muscle Shoals album is released and promoted, Pierce hopes to record a second Reverend Tall Tree album.
“We definitely want to,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of new material, and we’d love to get back into the studio before the end of the year.”
Reverend Tall Tree & the Black-strap Brothers return to Harvelle’s (1432 4th St., Santa Monica) for two extended sets starting at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29. Tickets are $10. Call (310) 395-1676 or visit reverendtalltree.com.