Son Little

Son Little performs a set at NPR's 2015 CMJ showcase, which took place at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York City on Oct. 14, 2015

Washington Phillips preached. He plowed the Lord’s earth in Texas as the 20th Century dawned, lifted his voice to sing of unity– one people under God. Wash attended numerous churches in the area of Teague, TX and even took to the streets to foster his own congregation. Jack-leg preacher. He wrote gospel songs that resonated more like blues. Wash also had a peculiar instrument. He called it a manzarene, and it looked to be the odd mating of two autoharps. In fact, historians claim that the manzarene was actually one part celestophone (a kind of zither) and another part phonoharp. Washington Phillips made the instruments one and strum/plucked the strings with both hands.

Washington Phillips went to Dallas in the late 1920s and made 18 recordings for Columbia Records. You can hear the soft melodies issuing from the manzarene beneath Wash’s faithful voice on his most famous composition, the “Denomination Blues.” That song and others have flowed across the river of music and time. One has only to kneel at the banks and dip the music from the water– dark and strong, sweet and swift. The music, the water has no bottom– or at least no one’s found it yet.

Aaron Livingston’s father preached. His mother taught and the family traveled. Aaron began in Los Angeles, crossed America. New York then finally Philadelphia. Music made the days and nights– hip hop, r&b, soul, rock & roll. Aaron hooked up with the Roots, made an appearance on 2011’s Undun. He started writing and releasing his own music, collaborations, production. The river was all around him. Aaron dove as deep as he dared and came up Son Little.

Son Little is a bit of everywhere, sounds like he could be from anywhere. That’s what his first full-length album was– songs and tracks written and recorded wherever he had the space and time. He embraced the opportunity to work with Mavis Staples and won a Grammy for his work on “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” Son Little hit the road. He was a rhythm & blues man, but his songs couldn’t be contained. He loved the landscapes of Stevie Wonder, the attitude of Prince, the primal ability of Jimi Hendrix– supermen on the stage and in the studio.

2017 saw the release of New Magic, and this is what it is: It’s the sound of the river, it’s organic and earthy but clean, pure. There’s love and lust and all that good shit. The solid voodoo of “ASAP”, the salivant sexuality of “Bread & Butter.” There’s fear in the music as Little wraps his fingers around the bottle and self medicates to George Harrison-esque riffs. New Magic moves and snaps like 1960’s soul, but reaches into the back pocket to brandish an edge– and occasionally it draws blood. The manzarene would have worked on “Demon To The Dark.” Son Little calls out to Washington Phillips from across the years. It’s a rage and a thunder that wants to explain, needs an answer of forgiveness.

New Magic is hot with production– possibly it’s one flaw; however, the strength of the songs keep it afloat. As Son Little, Aaron Livingston moves past hip-hop and rock n’ roll. It’s not strictly soul, couldn’t be. Like Wash Phillips’ manzarene, he’s has taken from the river. He’s scrubbed the pieces raw, created a new alloy from the minerals. Son Little is a sonic alchemsist.

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