The crisp chill of autumn mattered not last night in downtown Cary, NC, as the Memphis-based R&B group Southern Avenue delivered a two-hour set of radiant joy that warmed everyone within earshot. Couples young and old danced and swayed at either side of the outside stage while little children frolicked at its foot, mimicking as best they could the hardest working woman in show biz, the band’s lead singer Tierinii Jackson. She reminded both of us of Tina Turner with her whirlwind moves; save for a handful of slower numbers, she was in perpetual motion.
A free show such as this, part of a city-sponsored festival accented by food trucks and beer & wine vendors, is likely a blessing and a curse to the artists and bands that play them. It’s a paid gig, which is good, but most folks on hand don’t know the music—you have to win them over one note at a time. And, this night, Southern Avenue did just that. By the concert’s end, everyone’s voices blended together on a moving audience sing-along of “Don’t Give Up.” Like many of their songs, it preaches positivity and determination, of not giving up when the going gets tough.
That positivity was on full display from the moment the band hit the stage at 7pm, not long after day faded into night. They opened with one of the many highlights from their 2021 album Be the Love You Want, “Push Now,” which sports a similar message of determination and grit: It served as a perfect benediction for all that followed. Slower tunes were few and far between, but as hypnotic—a cover of Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone” gave both guitarist Ori Naftaly and organist Jeremy Powell a chance to shine, for example.
In fact, Jeremy Powell was the night’s big surprise for both Diane and I, as on album his Hammond skills lurk in the background. Other highlights included the title track of their 2019 album Keep On, the impassioned “Let’s Get It Together” from Be the Love and a rollicking cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” which I’d share except for the little kids dancing about, plus the aforementioned “Don’t Give Up” (from their 2017 debut).
To say it was a perfect night would be an understatement. As good as Southern Avenue are on album, and they are incredible, I can now report that they are tenfold better on stage. Tierinii Jackson is the consummate frontwoman; she didn’t go in for much between-song patter, but there was no need. She possesses the kind of vocals that infiltrate the souls of all who listen, imparting joy and positivity. Ori Naftaly had some technical issues with his amp early on, but once they were resolved stepped to the fore time and again. Organist Jeremy Powell, as I said above, was equally great, while bassist Evan Sarver and drummer Tikyra Jackson kept a steady beat throughout. Tierinii and Tikyra’s younger sister Ava, a recent Belmont University grad and classical violinist, was a perfect backup singer, with her familial harmonies adding depth to all the songs. (About the only negative, and it’s not really one, was that they didn’t perform more songs from Be the Love You Want.)
I should mention that it’s been a long time since Diane and I were out and about, as the last show we saw occurred during last fall’s pre-omicron lull. There was no better re-introduction to live music than Southern Avenue; they are joy personified. If/when they come to your town, whether it’s free or a ticketed gig, don’t think twice—go see them.