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Review: The Relatives at Kessler Theater

Posted 2:43pm on Saturday, Mar. 23, 2013

The plea was to a higher power, but it was also unmistakably human.

The Reverend Tommie West, clad in a natty, off-white suit, stood alongside his bandmates in the Relatives, the Dallas-based gospel group resuscitated earlier this year after three decades of silence, and exhorted the Kessler Theater: "Don't let me fall!"

His cry wasn't one of lamentation so much as exultation, a stirring command for everyone within earshot to get up and dance.

"Is everybody moving?" West asked, shielding his eyes and peering into the darkness. Seeing that, yes, much of the full house was moving about, West commanded those before him to "drop it down," and like clockwork, the Relatives sunk to the stage, their knuckles practically scraping the carpets underfoot. It wasn't quite a religious fervor, but something very near ecstasy.

Fitting, given the occasion: the night was meant to celebrate the February release of The Electric Word, the Relatives' debut full-length album and the restoration of a career the West brothers, Tommie and Gean, gave up more than 30 years ago to pursue lives in the church. The ability to sermonize through gloriously funky, richly textured song is what makes the Relatives so compelling -- and more than once Friday night, it was impossible not to be moved by what was unfolding on stage during the band's 70-minute set.

To a man, each member of the Relatives -- Tommie and Gean West, Tony Corbitt, Tyron Edwards and Earnest Tarkington -- boasted a broad smile at some point, underlining their joy at being able to once again perform as a group. Gratitude begat grooves, and the Relatives excel at wrapping a hopeful, positive message -- one song asks, plainly, "What's wrong with America?" -- in sounds that would make Sly Stone or Otis Redding nod his head in recognition.

This is not a revival act, at least not in the hipster-y, "found art" sort of way. The Relatives have deeper and, yes, higher aims than merely catching the wave of soul and R&B throwbacks currently finding favor with tastemakers. As far as those in attendance at the Kessler Theater, Friday night might as well have been Sunday morning.

Local R&B treasure Bobby Patterson very nearly upstaged the headliners with his 40-minute opening set, packed with choice tunes and ribald jokes (although he turned 69 earlier this week, his sense of humor is firmly in its teens). Like the Relatives, Patterson is a musical legend hiding in plain sight, but you wouldn't know it to watch him tear through his songs, like the classic TCB or TYA.

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