YOU'D BE HARD PRESSED to find another band in Portland like Brownish Black—mainly because the members of the neo-soul band have had a difficult time themselves. Since their inception two and a half years ago, the eight-piece has performed with local soul DJs and an assortment of out-of-towners, while remaining hidden in the far corner of Portland's indie-friendly community.
Then again, Brownish Black isn't the easiest band to pin down. On the heels of 2011's That Love EP, Brownish Black is gearing up for the release of a new 7-inch (45 RPM, in soul speak). Aside from the obvious Stax influences, the songs share the scrappy rock 'n' roll attitude of lesser-known soul outfits like Miami's James Knight and the Butlers and Black Panther house band the Lumpen.
Sitting at a back table at the White Eagle, four of the members—guitarist-vocalist M.D. Sharbatz, sax player Marco Fusaro, bassist Mub Fractal, and vocalist Vicki Porter—are dressed to the nines as they wait for tonight's performance. It's obvious this group loves what they do, but Sharbatz insists there are no illusions of recreating the past.
"We're not a soul band in the true sense—that would be impossible to replicate," says Sharbatz. "It's just a version of it."
Brownish Black's version gives equal play to stabbing horns as it does Sharbatz's greasy guitar lines, which are maximized by the band's raw and sweaty live performances. And Porter—who was raised in Portland listening to defunct soul station KQIV—can belt it out high or keep it low to the ground. The band's ramshackle take on soul is no doubt a product of Sharbatz's Detroit upbringing, reared on his father's the Stooges and Mitch Ryder records. "We're not a smooth band," he says. "We don't know how."
Sharbatz moved to Portland four years ago with a handful of songs he recorded back home. Brownish Black has steadily grown in size over the years to its current eight-piece form, a well-oiled machine that Sharbatz says is all about the live performance. "I think seeing is believing for a band like us." Fusaro says about their effect on audiences. "They might start out in their seats, but they don't stay there for long."