The nine-piece Gainesville band returns to the Bo Diddley Community Plaza stage this week for a Free Fridays concert that is sure to be a crowd-pleasing event.
The last time the Savants of Soul performed on the large outdoor stage at Bo Diddley Community Plaza, they opened for the legendary Charles Bradley in a memorable concert event in late February.
On a chilly winter evening, the band’s soulful music warmed up a spirited crowd of more than 2,000 people during the highlight of a special event known as Changeville.
“That was a really special night,” said Alex Klausner, drummer for the Savants of Soul. “I can’t even describe the thrill of getting the email inviting us to play that night. And Charles Bradley was one of the most gentle, warm-hearted people you’d ever want to meet.”
This week, the Savants of Soul are not a warmup act but rather the headliners at Bo Diddley Plaza for a Free Fridays Concert Series event from 8-10 p.m.
The band consists of Klausner, Justin McKenzie (lead vocals), Austin Van Wie (guitar), John Gray Shermyen (bass), Zack Emerson (keyboards), Mandy Moo (trumpet, vocals), Jason Beverung (trombone), David Rinehart (tenor saxophone) and Ray Vigil (baritone saxophone).
Anyone who has heard the Savants of Soul perform can vouch for their energetic Motown sound that combines traditional soul music with a distinctive funk reminiscent of a bygone era. The nine-piece band, including a full-blown horn section, creates the perfect platform for McKenzie’s heartfelt melodies.
“Justin is such a fireballer of a singer,” Klausner said. “His voice is a powerful presence, and he’s so good with the crowd.”
McKenzie will be in the spotlight on Friday night — wearing his trademark powder-blue leisure suit and Afro pick — belting out the group’s catchy tunes such as “Hoopla,” “On the Passenger Side” and “You’re All Mine.”
“I love to entertain people,” said McKenzie, a Gainesville native and GHS grad who has sung with the Savants of Soul since almost their inception in 2010. “I’ve always had an outgoing personality. I just go onstage and do my thing.”
For the first time in awhile, the band will not have a lead female vocalist performing onstage Friday night. However, trumpeter Mandy Moo will accompany McKenzie when the mood strikes.
The Savants of Soul have had a busy year since opening for Bradley. In May they opened for the Wailers at High Dive and earned instant praise from the reggae band formed by the remaining members of Bob Marley & the Wailers.
In June, the Savants of Soul released a four-song EP titled “Sunday Best” and then, on July 3, performed before thousands of revelers during Fanfare & Fireworks at UF’s Flavet Field.
Then, on July 6, the band embarked on its first extended tour that was scheduled to have six stops in four states in nine days before returning to Gainesville for a homecoming concert at High Dive on July 16.
The Savants of Soul did indeed whoop it up in Charleston, S.C., and Raleigh, N.C. However, then their tour bus broke down outside Boone, N.C., forcing them to cancel a gig in Johnson City, Tenn. Once the mechanical issues were resolved, the band went on to perform in SEC rival towns Knoxville, Nashville and Athens, Ga.
McKenzie was especially pleased with the stop in Knoxville, home to the University of Tennessee.
“Volunteer Country was very receptive of us even though I spent a good minute talking trash about their football team,” he said. “I got some boos, but by the next song they were into it.”
Klausner said the band received a great response at every stop.
“The performances themselves were really special,” he said. “The best thing about the tour was having an entire roomful of people hearing our music for the first time. It’s something we haven’t experienced in quite a while.”
He called the tour “rejuvenating” and brought the Savants of Soul home with renewed enthusiasm for the future.
“I really feel we have the ability to continue the forward momentum and the upward trajectory,” Klausner said. “The goal is to continue being the Savants of Soul, no matter what happens. We’re starting to dream big. We’re swinging for the fences at this point!”
Added McKenzie: “After the tour, it definitely felt more like a family than we ever have.”
The mid-July concert at High Dive included a feel-good moment for the band and, in particular, trombonist Jason Beverung. He wrote and sang a doo-wop ballad moments before proposing to his girlfriend, Danielle, in front of the stage. (And she said “Yes!”)
Klausner, Shermyen and Wilson Stern were the band’s three original members in 2010. They were heavily influenced by Sam Cooke’s 1963 album “Live at the Harlem Square Club.”
“It was raw around the edges — that live, energetic soul sound,” Klausner said. “Once we heard that album, the lightbulb came on. We try to pay homage to that era.”
Seven members were onstage in 2011 when the Savants of Soul debuted at the old 1982 Bar on University Avenue. There have been as many as 13 members onstage at a time.
The band is young but seasoned. All members of the Savants of Soul are still in their 20s. Many of them have music degrees from UF or attended Santa Fe College. Like so many bands before them, the Savants of Soul are uniquely Gainesville.
Klausner, 26, said calling the group’s first album “Downtown Sound” was a no-brainer.
We chose the name because downtown Gainesville is where we cut our teeth — at the Wooly, the Atlantic, the Jam,” he said. “Playing downtown helped cultivate us and lock in our sound.”
It might surprise some people to learn that the biggest musical influence of hometown son McKenzie, 27, was not a soul-era performer like James Brown but rather raspy-voiced pop star Rod Stewart.
“I grew up listening to soul music, but I never thought about performing soul,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome!”
McKenzie has performed in bands half his life, at first playing piano and guitar. He was friends with Klausner and others long before the Savants of Soul were formed, and yet he was not invited to try out for the band.
“I hate to sound racist, but a bunch of white guys starting a Motown band and not asking their only black friend …” his voice trailing off for proper effect.
Klausner admitted that the band struck gold when McKenzie eventually did come on board.
“He’s a bona-fide soul man,” Klausner said. “Justin brings so much energy, dynamics and stage presence.”
And that, Klausner explained, is what the Free Fridays crowd at Bo Diddley Plaza can expect from the Savants of Soul.
“It’s going to be an explosive, fun night,” he said. “We want people to dance and participate in the music. When the crowd gets into it, we get more into it and it turns into this energetic feedback loop.
“As a performer, when that happens, it’s like ‘Ahhh. …’”
— Noel Leroux
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