The Relatives see success the second time around

The Relatives

7 p.m. March 22

The Kessler Theater, 1230 W. Davis. St., Dallas



Posted 12:36am on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013

"The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works." -- 2 Corinthians 12:12

DALLAS -- From outside, No Walls Ministry doesn't look like the launching pad for a comeback.

The church, tucked away in the rear of a South Dallas strip mall just feet from a bustling intersection, greets visitors with barred windows, scuffed wooden pews and stained maroon carpets.

The remnants of a New Year's celebration adorn the walls and ceiling, and above the entrance -- a pair of glass doors, smeared with handprints -- hangs a banner proclaiming "To God Be the Glory."

It is in this humble, spacious room on this overcast January afternoon that the Relatives are talking about the band's second chance to make a first impression.

"This is something we have been waiting on, and it's finally come to pass," says the Rev. Tommie West, 75, seated at a long card table draped with white cloth. "We're all excited over it."

Led by brothers and pastors Tommie and Gean West, the Relatives were, until 2009, something of a footnote in Texas musical history. It's not too much of a stretch to consider them genuine musical apostles, tasked with spreading the word but forced to display true patience.

Formed in 1970 by the West brothers, the Relatives, rooted in the church but well-versed in the sounds of the day, recorded three singles ( Walking On, Don't Let Me Fall and This World Is Moving Too Fast), toured nationally, weathered a lineup change in 1975 and, despite modest regional success, never got around to recording a full-fledged album.

Anyone expecting by-the-numbers gospel music gets a shock when they hear the aggressive wah-wah pedal, fuzzed-out guitar solos and rolling bass lines of Walking On -- the Relatives bridge the gaps between psychedelic rock, funk, gospel and soul in a way no one has before or since.

The Relatives took that which was most familiar to them -- the religious messages heard each Sunday from the pulpits of churches not unlike No Walls Ministry -- and put the teachings inside a revelatory context.

Unfortunately, few sparked to what the Relatives were doing, and in 1980, they drifted apart and the West brothers pursued different paths: Tommie founded the No Walls Ministry, while Gean kept a hand in the music world, managing gospel performers.

In 2009, after nearly 30 years, Heavy Light Records, an independent label based in Austin, approached Gean West to gauge his interest in re-releasing some of the Relatives' old music.

"It was like a dream come true; I was very grateful," the 66-year-old says. When he took Heavy Light's request to the group, he adds, "they didn't believe me, but it was real."

The Black Joe Lewis connection

The label oversaw Don't Let Me Fall, a compilation of everything the Relatives recorded in the '70s, which led to a spot on Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears' 2011 LP Scandalous, where they contributed vocals to the tune You Been Lyin'.

It was that collaboration that brought them to the attention of producer Jim Eno, a founding member of Spoon and the group's drummer. He produced what became The Electric Word, the Relatives' official debut album, which arrives in stores Tuesday.

The 10-track album, recorded over two weeks at Eno's Public Hi-Fi Studios in Austin, evokes the past even as it places the Relatives, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s, firmly within the retro-R&B revival that has blossomed over the past decade (see also: Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, et al.).

"It's really amazing, because I think they have the attitude and the feeling that they've gotten a second chance," Eno says. "They have the attitude and the drive that, basically, a young, 20-year-old band would have. It's so new and exciting to them.... You can definitely feel that in their performances and even hanging out with them in the studio. They're really happy they're getting this opportunity to make music again."

Indeed, that good feeling is palpable throughout the record, from the ecstatic opener, Things Are Changing, through to the stirring, a cappella closer, I Will Trust in the Lord. The Electric Word is a captivating showcase for the singular talents of the West brothers and their collaborators, which include Earnest Tarkington, Tyron Edwards, Zach Ernst, Tony Corbitt, Dale Burns, Matt Strmiska and Scott Nelson.

"I think we were ahead of our time," the 65-year-old Tarkington says. "We picked up right back from the '70s ... right back where we left off."

'Straight out of a time machine'

None of the original members betrays any bitterness, although Tommie West allows that it was "somewhat" disappointing to have disbanded the Relatives in 1980.

Nevertheless, the group has been winning fans at a steady clip, thanks to astonishing live performances powered by what Tommie West describes as "the anointing." For him, there's no difference between the pulpit and the stage.

"When people gather, the energy builds up," he says. "It keeps on building -- not just on the stage, it runs over into the audience, and we all begin to come on one accord and it just keeps building more and more until the people begin to lose their minds. Every audience is different, but I look out and even while I'm singing, I'm saying in the back of my mind, 'Wow.'"

Zach Ernst, who played guitar for Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears before joining up with the Relatives, straddles the line between performer and audience member.

"That moment when we're on stage is unlike anything I've ever experienced onstage before," Ernst says. "They put on a show that's straight out of a time machine, but it's also still so affecting and their message is still so important, to see a diverse audience responding, it makes it all worth it just for that moment on stage bringing the Relatives' music to everyone. It's a sight to behold."

The Relatives plan to take full advantage of the renewed interest in their music, and the band will tour the country in support of The Electric Word. (The band will play a hometown show March 22 at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff.)

Plans beyond the immediate album release and string of concert dates aren't clear, although Eno and others feel that the Relatives have even more music inside them.

For now, however, the West brothers are content to enjoy what is before them. They waited many years for this moment, and perhaps because of the past, not in spite of it, they accept the years of waiting without anger or disappointment.

The Electric Word represents a lifetime's work, a patient dispatch from a dedicated group of apostles determined to share their unique vision of their deeply held beliefs.

"This had always been our heart's desire," Tommie West says. "We always wanted more and knew we could go higher and knew there was an audience out there for us.... Now we've been blessed with doors being opened ... and have exposed our music to a larger audience, and the people are loving it and catching on, and it's getting better every day.

"I always said, even the years we lost, it's all coming back and seems like it's all brand-new again. It seems it's like when we first started; it has revived itself."

Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic, 817-390-7713

Twitter: @prestonjones

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