There comes a point in any transcendent concert when the band has won. Fans are dancing and sweating and drinking. They don't have their cell phones out checking to see what's happening elsewhere; they only want this music played by these musicians to float into eternity. That's what Seattle soul band Down North has worked so hard to achieve with their shows. Each time they come to Spokane, making multiple appearances a year, they win.
In August, Down North's set at Mootsy's ignited the night. The audience kept looking at one another in amazement and disbelief. The band's Volume music festival show in May had a similar effect. Together, the four-piece grooves with hypnotic and virtuosic energy. Nicholas Quiller is known to unleash wild guitar solos. Conrad Real's gospel-style drumming makes complex and showy beats danceable and Brandon Storms keeps it all together with his chest-thumping bass licks. But it's Anthony Briscoe who entrances; the band's big-haired frontman moves and sings like he's on fire.
Down North keeps coming back to Spokane because they feel accepted here.
"Spokane gives us love," Briscoe says. "You have to go somewhere where people appreciate you. They don't appreciate us in our hometown."
They could all just move — Storms did; he lives in Portland now. But the others have ties to Seattle. In one sense, it's about making it happen from where they are. Seattle is one of the places where Ray Charles got his start; there's still plenty of soulful rock music being made there. Next month, Down North plays Neumos on Capitol Hill; they're just not at the top of the bill. Saturday night, Down North is back in Spokane headlining the Big Dipper's ugly sweater holiday party.
"People think we're a funk band," Briscoe says. "Three of the dudes are black and we're playing rock 'n' roll, and so people don't know what to call it. But there are no horns on the stage. We're soul. Rock 'n' roll has soul."
Briscoe is a song-and-dance man, perhaps of a different era. He laces conversation with phrases like "keep it groovy and hip-like." Always wanting to shine as a kid in North Carolina, he took ballet classes and performed in musicals. He's played the scarecrow in The Wiz at least four times, modeling his performance on Michael Jackson's film portrayal. (Briscoe loved the recent live version of the show on NBC.)
Briscoe reveres Michael Jackson. Prince inspires him, too. The pink pants he struts around in on stage are a tribute to a look Jackson once donned. In front of an audience, Briscoe's dance moves are free-form, yet rooted in the classics.
"When you start with Jackson's moves, you have to look at James Brown and Fred Astaire's, too," Briscoe explains. "You have to see what they did and then add in your own attitude."
The current act is a far cry from the original Down North formed in 2007 — the band started with eight white guys. Storms is the only one left of the original crew. When the singer quit, Briscoe came to the rescue, but his dramatic stage style alienated some of the other musicians. Cracks slowly formed and the band mostly parted ways, making way for the act Briscoe always imagined.
"I say, look at the top. You got Michael Jackson, shoot for that. Period," Briscoe says.
The band travels all around the country; already they've played blocks of shows in New York City four times this year. While they have about 70 original tunes, and a handful of killer covers, like the Beatles' "Come Together" and Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," they've only released one studio EP. Currently, the band has a recording finished, but Briscoe says the only way to release the disc right is through correct promotion. He says it may come out next May.
A self-described stickler, Briscoe says that just a few months ago he was nearly homeless, couch-surfing until he found a landlord willing to overlook a past eviction. Still, he refuses to get another job.
"It's a weird thing with me. I feel like I have to prove a point, that in order to make it in the music business you have to make it playing full time," Briscoe admits.
He refers to a lot of other artists as hobbyists. Down North certainly isn't that.
"This band, we're about bringing musicianship back to pop music, because that's what it used to be," Briscoe says. "Motown and Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin — you got these great musicians making pop records, and now you have the closet DJs, you're not getting real musicians making pop records. That's what we are." ♦
Ugly sweater holiday party feat. Down North, Blackwater Prophet and Bullets or Balloons • Sat, Dec. 12, at 7:30 pm • $5/$8 • All-ages • The Big Dipper • 171 S. Washington • bigdipperevents.com • 863-8098