So I’m not down in Austin for SXSW (those of you who are better make the most of it for the rest of us) and I need some cheer-me-up music. So I’m writing this week about Ben l’Oncle Soul
Like a surprising number of my favorite groups and artists, I found Ben l’Oncle Soul completely on accident while trawling youtube for videos of a German brass band (more on them in a later post). After skipping through a video of the artist being interviewed on a German morning show, I saw this: an acoustic (loosely speaking) cover of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” performed by a young Frenchman who sang like a Motown soulman. And he had backup dancers with coordinated moves.
It’s hard to find out much biographical information about Ben l’Oncle Soul, but that really just plays into his persona as an almost mythical time-traveler sent from the 1960s to remind us what soul music should be. From what I have discerned, Benjamin Duterde of Tours, France took up a bowtie and the moniker Ben l’Oncle from the smiling man on Uncle Ben’s Rice, adding the surname Soul to avoid copyright complications. After releasing his first single in 2009, Ben l’Oncle Soul recruited a backing band, a horn section, and two backup vocalists/dancers a la the Temptations. Building a diverse repertoire of original songs and soul covers of pop songs, Ben l’Oncle Soul began a one-band soul revival. In France.
Duterde is unquestionably the face of the group, and even plays up his lead-billed soulman status in act’s live shows. Snazzily dressed in a bowtie, suspenders, and a fedora, the titular Ben l’Oncle croons and screams in a voice dripping with more soul than his closest American counterpart (Ben l’Oncle Soul even does a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” that reimagines the tune as though Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” had an illegitimate child). Duterde can sing as smoothly as Smokey Robinson or Lionel Richie and scream as wildly as Otis Redding or James Brown. The singer’s melodic and dynamic is impressive, and even more so as he shifts back and forth through English, French, and on at least one occasion Spanish. While the howls and blues runs that can be heard on record give the listener an idea, Ben l’Oncle Soul really needs to be seen visually for his coolness to be fully realized; something about the mannerisms and movements Duterde goes to while performing fleshes his character out that much more. Though the music is highly enjoyable just at face value, the band is quite a bit more than a Motown-obsessed young man from France imitating Cee-Lo Green’s voice-cracking soul falsetto.
Likewise, though Duterde’s vocals take a definite front seat, the musicians in both Ben l’Oncle Soul’s studio recordings and live shows deserve attention of their own. At any point in any song the drummer could be deep in the pocket playing jazzy fills, the guitarist could rip out a blistering solo, the bassist could be laying out a funky line, the keyboardist could be building massive Rhodes organ chords, and the horns could be over the top of everything blasting out tasty fills (though it’s not terribly descriptive I can’t think of a more apt adjective for Ben l’Oncle Soul’s horn section than “tasty”). As should be the hallmark of any great soul act, every member of the group is a superstar in his or her own ride, even if only the lead singer is down on one knee having a cape draped over him.
Ben l’Oncle Soul only has two official releases currently making the rounds: an EP of covers in Soul Washand a full-length self-titled album, released in 2009 and 2010 respectively. The full-length features strong lead-off numbers in the aforementioned cover of Seven Nation Army, the introduction to Duterde in “Soul Man”, and the wild soul crescendo of “Petite Soeur”. From that point, the album rises and falls with soft ballads and loud screaming tunes, with even dashes of reggae (I Don’t Wanna Waste) and funky gospel (the album’s closer Back for You). The EP Soul Wash meanwhile treats the listener to soul covers of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”, putting a decidedly different spin on a few bubblegum-pop hits. In addition to those found on the album a few more inspired covers can be found floating around the internet, including Ben l’Oncle Soul’s takes on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Otherside” and the Police’s “Roxanne”.
With recent appearances on Later with Jools Holland and the excellent French youtube series le-Hiboo, Ben l’Oncle Soul is growing a bit in Europe, but is still largely unknown in North America. For the meantime, the artist can be found on twitter and through his official website, while his music is best available through Amazon. While no one is listening much to Ben l’Oncle Soul, his brilliant execution of classic soul music and the style and energy he brings to his performances go along with a tight backing band to make a sound (and an image) that begs-just as the old Motown and Rhino Records singers would- to be heard.