Adventures in ATL soul 

The scene thrives while singing the same refrain

It was a typical night at Harmony in Life, a soul-music showcase held every fourth week at Sugarhill. There was Rahbi, who was preceded to the stage by a lady who tossed rose petals in front of his feet, and followed by a manservant waving a fan. The homage to Eddie Murphy's Coming to America quickly shifted into a funk jamboree, with Rahbi interpreting ecstatic, over-the-top covers of Stevie Wonder's "Jammin'," Parliament's "Flashlight" and Rick James' "Give It to Me." He improvised lines to the beat, such as "my name is Rahbi, R-A-H-B-I" and "I'm telling you, telling you, telling you, myspace.com/rahbi." It was an aggressively dynamic showcase that made the sizable Harmony in Life crowd buzz with enthusiasm. Even El Pus, the house band who backed Rahbi, was so hyped it launched into a raucous jam session after he left the stage.

After El Pus finally simmered down, Shamora Crawford took the stage. An R&B industry veteran who has written numbers, composed vocal arrangements and sung backup for Monica, Jennifer Lopez, Brandy and many others, she performed a set of original material, including cuts from her 2006 album How It Feels. Every song was slow and reassuring, and they seemed to blend from one to the next. To a first-time observer, Shamora's set felt anticlimactic, but when she finished the audience cheered her as loudly as it did Rahbi.

There were other performers that May evening, including Jon Good, Maleke aka Victoria Blue, Stoni Taylor and Peter Hadar. But Rahbi and Shamora best embodied modern soul and its dual incarnations as innovative dance music and traditional balladry. Both exist within the same body, the same form; you can't separate one from the other.

The Atlanta soul scene, however, seems stuck in a '90s time warp, a zone where tradition has trumped innovation. Many of its players churn out variations of neo-soul, warm improvisational music with light hip-hop beats. Most musicians, by the way, hate the term "neo-soul." At this point, it's a put-down more than a compliment.

"The reason you have so many artists that shied away and got upset about being called neo-soul is that if you get labeled a neo-soul artist, you're getting lumped into urban adult contemporary," says Ron Smith, who has promoted Harmony in Life since 2004.

It's ironic that, as much as musicians may loathe neo-soul, it's the last formula to yield any kind of mainstream success. The last local soul musician to achieve international renown was India.Arie. And her last album, 2006's Testimony: vol. 1, Life & Relationship, drew some withering notices. "If you're not turned off by earnest expressions of self-righteousness set to comforting folk-tinged R&B, then Testimony just may be your cup of decaffeinated jasmine tea," read a review in Entertainment Weekly.

In fairness to India, her critics might be so sick of her image that they've tuned out her music. However, the reviewer has a point: One can't help but notice how conservative Atlanta soul has become. Gone are the days when Joi unleashed her inner Portishead on "The Sunshine and the Rain." Today, every singer seems to draw from the same inspirations: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.

"You know how you hear a rap artist, and you know they only listen to rap, so their music doesn't grow?" Smith says. "And you hear OutKast, and you hear all these other influences – the rock influences, the folk music influences and the harmonicas and all this other stuff? And it's like, 'Wow, this is so incredible and groundbreaking.' But it's not. It's just that they've been influenced by more music than just [rap]. And I think what you're getting back to [with many soul artists] is a lack of exposure to music."

Across town at Decatur's Mocha Match, Leaf Newnan leads her own showcase, the biweekly Leaf Cool Eclectic. A recent edition drew Jonathan Blanchard, a dreadlocked baritone who turned Negro spirituals such as "Wade in the Water" into percussive vocal arrangements à la Take 6; and Bose who, accompanied by a guitarist, sang a cover of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Just Like." Newnan took the stage, too, strumming her acoustic guitar with the ferocity of Ani DiFranco.

"The purpose of this event is to give local artists, independent artists, a platform to grow," says Newnan, who's been doing Leaf Cool Eclectic since last summer. "Everybody says they need [to be] 'feeling good,' so that's been our motto. If it feels good, it feels good."

Newnan, whose modest concerts draw dozens of people to the tiny nook that is Mocha Match, has plenty of local favorites: Julie Dexter, Carla "C-Sharp" Gomez, Lara Polangco, Jason Kenney and Phillippia. "I think Phillippia is awesome," Newnan says. "She was in Madea's Family Reunion and she did a vocal performance that I thought was awesome. It's like, I wonder why some of these artists in Atlanta aren't blowing up."

Phillippia is often cited by Atlanta soul enthusiasts as someone who deserves greater exposure. She began her career in Miami singing background vocals for rappers such as Iconz and Trick Daddy. "I've done some of the stuff that you hear on the radio," she says. "I found a new way of expressing myself." No longer a part of the R&B world, she now frequents jam sessions such as Tuesdays at Sugarhill and Wednesdays at Apache Café. "There's no stipulations. There's no rules, no regulations. You're letting everything in your system go, whether it's an original song or a song that you like. It's incredible," she says.

When people think of Atlanta soul, they inevitably draw comparisons to the distant past and icons such as Marvin and Stevie; or newer legends such as Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. But Atlanta soul closely resembles the rock, blues and singer/songwriter musicians who frequent clubs such as Smith's Olde Bar and Eddie's Attic.

These scenes are marked by professionalism and adherence to classic modes of live performance, song craft and vocal skills. Save for the occasional breakout star who manages to land a major-label deal, they are largely independent and localized, pooling their resources to press up CDs and undertake regional and international tours. Musically, they seem antiquated when compared with the big-budget urban pop and punky power-pop heard on the radio. But who is to say which is better or worse?

Anthony David loves Detroit producers Platinum Pied Pipers and L.A. duo J*Davey, which mixes hip-hop and soul with electronics. "Those things are really, like, forward to me," he says.

When it comes to himself, he says, "I wouldn't even say my music is progressive. And when I say that, I'm not dissing myself. I don't know ... I'm not trying to change the world or nothing."

But David is selling himself short. He can match a broad palette ranging from Bill Withers-styled folk to '80s synth-pop with an easy and disarming presence. He infuses his sound with a heartfelt sincerity. David is typical of many in the Atlanta soul scene, quietly progressive yet sometimes afraid to admit it.

For all the nitpicking over the current soul scene, it remains wildly popular, drawing enthusiastic audiences in packed nightclubs. "I see artists taking chances, growing and exploring," Smith says. "I just don't think they get the shine they need."

International Soul Summit 

Last year, the inaugural International Soul Summit felt like a minor miracle. In less than four weeks, Radio One executive Terry Bello drew 500 people from throughout the independent soul movement, including artists such as Donnie, Eric Roberson and Jaguar Wright.

Six weeks later, Bello's girlfriend committed suicide. "One of [my girlfriend's] final words in her suicide note was, 'Hold the music to the sun and bring it home.'... She had a love for this music the way I do," he says. "If it wasn't for my girlfriend, I wouldn't have done Soul Summit No. 1."

Despite the tragedy, the 2007 International Soul Summit looks poised to grow on last year's debut. Bello says more than 1,225 people from distant locales such as Britain and Germany will attend. Most of them will be industry executives and independent artists who carefully nurture their audiences, forming relationships much deeper than the typical artist-fan relationship. It's led to some surprising success – New Jersey's Roberson has reportedly sold 100,000 CDs on his own. Now the underground soul scene is widening its horizons. This year's theme is "underground meets mainstream."

"We don't get any radio airplay. We don't get any mainstream exposure," Bello says. "You look at an artist like Eric Roberson, if he had mainstream PR he'd be a superstar.

"For the last six months creating the next Soul Summit has been one of the biggest challenges of my life," he says. "I'm not doing this for personal satisfaction or gain. This is what I do. This music is my life."

The summit takes place from Wednesday, July 25, to Sunday, July 29, and features daytime symposiums and music showcases as well as networking parties and nighttime concerts. Walk-up registration is available. Visit www.soulsummitonline.com for details.

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