Wouldn’t it be something to have an “Unplugged” concert of old, Southern soul? Take Aretha, Percy Sledge, James Carr, and other giants to a little bar, give them the barest of backing, and get them to sing through what is arguably the best, deepest, and most resonating section of the American catalog—namely, their own songs?
Well, that won’t happen, but you have the next best thing in Moments From This Theater by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. Between Muscle Shoals and American Studios in the 1960's, guitarist Penn and keyboardist Oldham played on many of the greatest Southern soul sides of all time, and if they didn’t perform on a certain single, good chances are that they wrote it. Though little known, these two Alabamans were key architects of Southern soul through their writing and playing. Author Peter Guralnick, in his indispensable Sweet Soul Music that chronicles that time and music, calls Dan Penn “the renegade white hero” of this era for his feistiness, musical chops, and songwriting acumen; his demos cut for artists like Franklin, Pickett, and Carr remain the whispers of legend. Spooner Oldham, for his part, continues to add his always-what’s-needed-and-never-more keyboard touches to various projects, including for Bettye LaVette’s fairly towering 2007 The Scene of the Crime.
Moments From This Theatre captures Penn and Oldham together on a tour of the United Kingdom in 1998. It’s just the two of them, Penn on acoustic guitar and Oldham on Wurlitzer piano, running through 14 of their own songs that were cornerstones of the Southern soul canon, as performed by other artists. They wisely choose not to recreate the brimstone of the original versions of these songs in favor of offering them as sepia-toned, quiet reflections and recollections. By all accounts, this pair back in their day raised many lifetimes worth of hell, but here they sing and play these songs as from the two older men sitting at the far end of the bar. They’re talking quietly into their pints whether you’re listening or not, but you younger bucks that ignore them may be in danger of spending the rest of your lives thinking that the Silver Bullet is a damn good brew. The album doesn’t work itself into a good, knee-buckling lather, but it doesn’t drag, either. And while Penn’s reading of his “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” won’t have you putting Aretha Franklin’s version on Ebay, its knowing and regretful tone will make you appreciate Aretha’s that much more. That’s pretty much all you can ask of Moments From This Theatre, but pause for a second to appreciate just how much that’s asking, after all.
Moments kicks off with “I’m Your Puppet” (performed over the years most by James and Bobby Purify, done often by others), in which the delicacy of Oldham’s Wurlitzer and the perfect phrasing and diction of Penn’s molasses-cum-bourbon vocals mimics a head, limbs, and tail being wagged by a bunch of strings. “Sweet Inspiration” follows, demonstrating Penn and Oldham’s mastery of balancing a song with both breathing room and bounce. The alternation of “Puppet” and “Inspiration,” with their sass and sorrow, is the blueprint for the rest of the album.
The record’s center comes with “It Tears Me Up” (originally waxed by Percy Sledge) into “The Dark End Of The Street” (recorded by the likes of Clarence Carter and Sledge, although James Carr’s version stands above them all). No matter who cuts them, they’re simply staggeringly great singles, for which Penn and Oldham acquit themselves with performances that sit comfortably alongside of any of the others. Penn especially gathers himself together on “Dark End” to deliver passion and sadness as a single emotion. “They’re gonna find us,” he sings, with the “us” sometimes landing in the upper register and sometimes given as a soul-style shout. It’s a declaration of both the power of the now and the inevitability of tomorrow, which is the knife’s edge upon which soul music has always stood. Penn and Oldham, two sexagenarians that have surely been found many times by now, are standing on that edge still in Moments From This Theatre. Get this album, join them at the bar, and listen.