Rock ‘N’ Roll Baby: Seven Questions with Barrence Whitfield
Barrence Whitfield, Photo: Drew Reynolds
There aren’t too many times you can catch an act that’s energetic, electrifying, and life changing while still in their prime. However, on Wednesday, January 20th, you can do just that when Barrence Whitfield & The Savages performs over at Under The Volcano. A true garage rock and R&B veteran, Whitfield has made quite the name for himself as an act that will knock your socks off with his powerful performance. Originally from Boston, Whitfield is the quintessential front man backed by the massively talented sounds of The Savages. Peter Greenberg, the guitarist who started the band is best known for his work with Lyres and DMZ, while bassist Phil Lenker, drummer Andy Jody, and saxophonist Tom Quartulli bring the jams on as The Savages while Whitfield echoes the howls of Howlin’ Wolf and James Brown. These guys are a true treasure to catch live, and FPH was lucky enough to snag a moment of Whitfield’s time to discuss his past, his present, and what everyone in Houston can expect from his live set.
FPH: You’ve made a name as one of the foremost artists involved with this garage rock revival that’s been going on for the past 20 years, do you feel like you’ve lead the charge?
BARRENCE WHITFIELD: I don’t know, I might have been part of it. I’ve done so much other types of music and there’s been so many others who really lead the charge and kept things going like The Sonics, being the age they are and still performing. I definitely put them higher up than myself, especially after touring with them last year and becoming their friends, it was a fortunate experience for me and the band. Those guys were a large part of why we brought this band back after a 26 year gap. When we got back together five years ago, we looked to them for how we could go about it.
FPH: I caught you a couple of years ago and I was blown away by your sheer force and energy. Now you’re 60, how do you keep the intensity high or does it just come naturally?
BARRENCE WHITFIELD: I’ve been doing it a long time, and when you love something, it’s easy to keep the energy high and relish the good times versus focusing on the hardships. The little clubs is where it’s at, and it’s always been my favorite way to perform or to watch a performance. You get the energy, the sweat, the room sweats, and you can feed off of the audience while they feed off of you. We played a show once recently, and people walking by the club asked people who were exiting, “What happened in there?” It was great and a great experience for us to have that connection, so for me, that’s where I feel we really shine.
FPH: You have an impressive back catalog of tunes, though there’s an electrifying feel to this new album, “Under The Savage Sky,” that feels timeless. Was there anything different about how you approached this release?
BARRENCE WHITFIELD: The record we released before this one, I reached out to a friend in Spain to release it, who said he’d be honored to put it out. When we looked to the States, everyone kept telling me to hit up Bloodshot Records. They got us and who we were from the get go and they support us to where I feel like it’s the smartest move we’ve ever made as a band. So, with that support, on this release we were looking to have a little more mortality. Writing songs that were full of our life experiences that you go through when you get a little older was what we pulled from on this album. Tracks like the tongue in cheek nature of “Incarceration Casserole” where this guy’s wife gets locked up in prison, but she did all of the cooking and cleaning and he can’t do either; so it’s like he’s the one who’s actually doing time in jail instead of her. Or “Angry Hands,” about a boxer who has done all of these terrible things with those angry hands, or even “Willow,” which is based on a true story where a 15 year old girl in New Mexico joined a cult. All these ideas that feel like stuff we’ve gone through in our lives while still putting The Savages touch on each and every song.
FPH: You’ve been compared to the likes of Little Richard and Wilson Pickett, do you feel that you carry their legacy in your work and performances?
BARRENCE WHITFIELD: I think I’ve gotten to the point where I have my own identity, and I feel like after years of hard work I’ve made my own mark. I look to those guys for inspiration alongside guys like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and James Brown, and like other artists I have my influences. But I appreciate how they were doing what I was doing at an older age than I am now and did it until they passed, so they’ll definitely always be my guys.
FPH: You’ve had a ton of success in Europe, and when I met King Khan, he said that they’re so hungry for it there. Can you echo that sentiment about European crowds?
BARRENCE WHITFIELD: I will definitely agree with him. We just finished a seven week run over there two weeks ago, and in Spain especially, they were definitely hungry. The clubs were packed every night when we’d walk out on stage, and I think their thirst for it comes from all of the years of having Francisco Franco as their leader. He kept them from all of that good music so they’ve been trying to catch up since he died. They appreciate it and they know more about you than you know about you. I always tell bands to appreciate it when they get to Europe, because they’re different from the rest of the world in how they treat bands. Here in the states, I think so many people are used to change or what’s next, so they see acts like Elvis as a novelty. But over there they still slick their hair back and cuff their jeans, and they love an artist for life. They still wanna’ hear Johnny Cash and relish the acts they love. I mean, the rockabilly guys have started gravitating to our music and acts like The Sonics, because the acts they adore have retired or passed away. Back in the sixties, there was so much “roots” or “urban” music where today hip hop is all that’s left in that world. We had to have the Brits show us great blues acts to appreciate them ourselves. All the stuff I came up on, I realize that you guys down in the South get exposed to it early on, but on the coasts, they might not ever hear it. So now when I meet a kid who approaches me with a Howlin’ Wolf album, I try to educate them about who he was and what he was about, because I want people here to appreciate where our music comes from; and maybe they’ll start to love it as much as those crowds in Europe do.
FPH: Your live shows are legendary, where they’ve become known for their raucous energy, what should people in Houston expect from you when you perform?
BARRENCE WHITFIELD: The same Damn Thing as Always. Rock n’ roll, party, sweat. Bring a towel, bring a bottle of water, or just show up and have a good time.
FPH: I know you studied journalism, how’d this interview go?
BARRENCE WHITFIELD: Great. I think being a journalist is tough nowadays, seeing where things are going politically. But guys like us, we gotta’ just keep supporting the music we love and hope that it all gets better.
Barrence Whitfield & The Savages is definitely one of those acts that everyone needs to see live at least once. His electrifying sets are life changing experiences. You can catch him when he performs at Under The Volcano on Wednesday January 20th with Mikey & The Drags on as opener and direct support. The 21 & up show has doors at 8:00 and a $10.00 cover. More details are available here.