[Editor’s note: When I mention the Soulfinger story to infamous Pres Pub co-owner Scott West, he says the band’s front-man needs him… as his wardrobe assistant…
“Because I would pimp Tim Spencer out. When Soulfinger is funking up our First Friday, Tim needs a green velvet suit (like mine), a fedora with feathers, and a cane shiny enough to match the mirror shoes I’m gonna buy him.”]
Perhaps it’s safe to say that Knoxville’s seven-man funk unit Soulfinger aren’t the most original outfit in town, nor are they the city’s most polished pop craftsmen. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more dynamic, viscerally charged and consistently crowd-pleasing live act—here, or anywhere else for that matter—than this eight-year-old Knox club staple.
Says garrulous frontman and harp wheedler Tim Spencer, it’s all about formula—a sure-fire funk formula tested, tempered, and handed down from genre icons James Brown and Bobby Byrd, and now being fine-tuned only in the last few years of Soulfinger’s existence.
“Brown and Byrd were rivals, then bandmates,” Spencer explains. “That sound, with the heavy horns and heavy driving bass, is something we’ve only had for the last three years or so, because our membership has changed some. But it’s the sound we wanted, and now that we’ve acquired it, we’re perfecting it, getting it down.
“The sound is based on heavy repetition, usually in the key of D, repetitious grooves with emphasis on the first chord, that ‘D.’ Then, when you’re really driving that chord, when you change to the ‘G’ chord in the progression, the dynamics change so much it’s almost like going into a different song. If you watch the crowd, it’s like they’re all getting down, then when we hit that chord, they go through the roof. That’s when, for lack of a better word, everyone orgasms” (hmm, maybe that pimp reference isn’t so far off after all).
Soulfinger began as a four-piece, a handful of blues musicians who were tired of competing for time with dozens of other workaday blues outfits in town. They began plying their trade with Spencer at center stage—a gifted frontman who is as at home with chanting, bantering, braying, call-and-response, as he is at belting out blues standards.
“We all loved soul music, and funk, and wanted a change of scene,” Spencer says. “I’m a blues harmonica and piano player by trade, but I grew up listening to Sam Cooke. And there were blues bands everywhere. We didn’t want to be just another one.”
Spencer says they, aspired to, and eventually acquired, a horn section. They issued their first record—the Soulfinger Party EP—only three years or so ago. They’ve got a full-length upcoming soon—only their second release—probably destined to see the light of day this fall.
As to why they haven’t been more productive in the studio, Spencer points in part to the fact that all of Soulfinger’s members have day jobs, other responsibilities that temper youthful dreams of making music a full-time endeavor.
“We’re all professionals on different levels,” he says. “We don’t even have rehearsals, except before special shows. But that helps us, too, because I’ve always said when you over-rehearse, you lose the essence of a song, because you’re trying to perfect it.
I’ve always done better with less rehearsal.”
And still, Soulfinger remain unparalleled in Knoxville in the realm of live performance; their shows are non-stop, sweat-soaked marathons of implosive hallelujah-funk dynamism. And it is Spencer who sets the tone and paces it all, leading the way like a combination charismatic preacher, carnie-show barker, and spiritual progeny of James Brown.
“The band is really good at knowing what I’m feeling,” Spencer says of Soulfinger’s live synergy. “And I’m really good at watching the crowd dynamically. Our energy really comes from the crowd, so if they’re getting down, we’ll stay funky all night long.”
What’s next for Soulfinger? Besides the new album and a First Friday soakdown at Pres Pub, they have a couple of really big gigs upcoming too, at Boomsday on the main stage in front of Calhoun’s at the riverfront on Sept. 1, and an Oktoberfest show on Oct. 12, sponsored by Restaurant Linderhof, at 12700 Kingston Pike.
But Spencer says the band’s vision is broader than just making another record, or playing a bigger show. “I like to use my music to be a world-changer, and that’s become a vision of the band,” he says. “We have a little quote we like to keep in mind. We are the keepers of soul, those who bear the torch that brings the flame to a new generation to light the fires of funk.”