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Jesse Dee bares his soul on new release

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published June 14. 2013 4:00AM
photo submitted
Jesse Dee kicks off the Summer Nights in the District concert series on Saturday night.

Jesse Dee was born in Mississippi under the front porch of a paint-peeling shotgun shack next door to a roadhouse owned by Guitar Slim. At the age of 6, Dee's parents - Otis Redding and Irma Thomas - went on tour and young Jesse lived with Elvis while they were gone.

None of this is true, of course.

But take a quick listen to Dee's brand-new release, "On My Mind / In My Heart" (Alligator), and you definitely know the guy's got some serious soul and R&B coursing through his bloodstream. It's almost eerie; hearing Dee's wonderful voice and original material is as though someone unearthed a long-lost Sam Cooke or Johnny Adams album.

The fact is, the 33-year-old Dee is from - of all places - Boston. And while, like a lot of dudes his age, he grew up with Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin albums in his collection, classic soul and rhythm 'n' blues have been his passion since he was a child.

Dee, who brings his incendiary band to New London Saturday for the inaugural show in the Hygienic Art Park's Summer Nights in the District concert series, answered five questions earlier this week.

Q: The first time I heard your music, I immediately knew you were from the South - except you're not. I just don't associate your musical style as originating in Boston. Is that just more provincial stupidity on my part?

A: Being that the South is the origin of the greatest soul music, I think the conclusion would only make sense in that regard. But I got into R&B and soul at a young age from the radio. When I was a kid, there was this station that played '50s pop, older R&B and doo-wop, and it just immediately grabbed me.

Don't get the idea that I isolated myself; I listened to a lot of stuff growing up, but I just connected to soul, and I kept digging and digging deeper and deeper.

Q: Your first album, "Bittersweet Batch," came out in 2008 on the independent 7not label. The new CD, "On My Mind / In My Heart," was released by Alligator Records, probably the most prestigious blues label in the world. How did that come about?

A: We were very lucky. We had recorded the record and were exploring options on how to release it in the most effective way. Seeing how much the music industry has changed, a major label was never something I was looking for, and I never expected any of them to pay any attention. Alligator was just one of many we sent it to - and (label president) Bruce Iglauer was nice enough to come out and explore the band live. We certainly feel lucky to be working with them, and it seems to be a great fit for us.

Q: Talk about the challenge of writing classic-style soul songs in the modern world. It would seem there is a sound and a structure you basically must use as a template, but at the same time you definitely have an ability to put your own imprint on the songs.

A: I'm glad it translates that way, and that's certainly the idea. We're definitely trying to incorporate some great and classic elements of records made in the '50s and '60s, but the music also needs to be relevent in 2013. The idea is to kind of evoke the feeling and mood of great soul music without overtly replicating it.

I think a lot of so-called retro music today falls victim to consciously writing the nuances and elements of the form; my approach is to try first to write good songs that connect with people - and then incorporate some of the soul elements. To be honest, I think some of the songs succeed more than others. At the same time, I don't know that one always has to stay within the form. I think my approach would be to take the template and twist it a bit.

Q: You and your band have made numerous trips to Europe. I think a lot of American artists - particularly in the fields of blues, roots and rockabilly - resonate with overseas audiences more than they do here in the States. Not to demean American music fans, but do you in general find that European audiences are more open to certain types of music that might not be mainstream?

A: I would never try to pigeonhole music fans, but I am trying to call it exactly how it is. Overall, looking across the general populace of Europe, you could make the point that they have a more refined taste in music - particularly in terms of soul and R&B. It's been that way ever since that style of music got over there. That's not to say people don't have refined taste in America, but in general there is (in Europe) a deeper and more intelligent appreciation for R&B (laughs). A lot of European musicians are trying to play American music, so if you go over there as an American musician, well, you've got that going for you. And that's helped a lot of us get work.

Q: Given that you are playing what might be described today as a niche form of music, are you able to quantify from the stage when you're affecting a casual listener - maybe someone who wasn't sure what they were going to hear when they walked in, and then are blown away?

A: Yeah, actually. I can see someone who's stepped in a club, maybe on a whim, and you can visibly see that they're greatly surprised. I love that. As a performer - or as an audience member, for that matter - that's what it's all about. Being able to connect with people - on a level where they stop their everyday life - and really grab them: that's an amazing feeling. Music has really moved me in substantial ways and, more than anything else, if we're able to move someone else in even a small way, then it's successful. It all comes down to the fact that we're entertainers and our job is to make you have a really good time.

IF YOU GO

Who: Jesse Dee

What: Summer Nights in the District Concert Series

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hygienic Art Park, 79-83 Bank St., New London

How much: $10

Info: (860) 443-8001, hygienic.org,

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