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R&B By the Dozen

A 12-piece soul orchestra is just enough for The Hands to handle

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A really good nickname might only come along once in a lifetime. On the other hand, a bad one can follow you around for years, and the ones you’d pick for yourself have a funny way of not sticking. What I’m trying to say is, a guy’s got to be happy if he finds himself coasting into that “safe” period with a bluesy handle like Johnny “The Hands” Davidson.

We’ll forget for a moment that Johnny didn’t actually come into being The Hands by playing music; for any musician, it’s a plum. It’s Johnny’s digits that fidget over the keys in Sweet Low Down and the Zoo City Players, a 12-piece soul orchestra with four singers, a horn section and everything.

A sunny Sunday afternoon finds nine of the 12 Players stuffed into a converted garage studio off Toole Avenue, working the knots out of the two sets they’ll be playing at their Missoula debut. Even down by three, that’s still a lot of people to keep on task, especially on a distractingly beautiful day. Between songs, Johnny has to speak up be heard over the absentminded prassling of sheet music and set lists and the fnittering of horns and guitar and the singers going over parts from two and three songs ago. The Hands, boxed in behind a Fender Rhodes, a Hammond B-3 organ and a Clavinet, is thinking out loud about the order of the songs on the set lists.

“It took Bo Diddley like 10 songs to get everybody up,” he says. “I mean, I know he’s 73 and all, but what we need to do is hit ‘em with a bunch of familiar tunes right away.”

Familiar to fans of vintage soul and R& B: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Fontella Bass, the Meters and the Staple Singers. Everyone gets right down to business with the Herbie Hancock tune “Chameleon,” which leads off the second set. “That’s to pull the dancing hippies over to us,” jokes The Hands.“Missoula’s always been lacking a soul band,” he tells me later, “and I love soul music. I love horn sections. I love men and women singers. And I love playing the B-3. That’s how Sweet Low Down was born.”

The B-3 is where it’s at for soul music. The Hands has got his set up to run through a grand old Leslie speaker—the kind with the oscillating horns that give the vintage Hammond sound its quavering loveliness. Just as the Clavinet gives The Hands his dirty funk edge for the comps on “Chameleon,” (the odd fusion duck in a mostly soul set) the Hammond thickens “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and “If You Want me to Stay” with the proper strobophonic shimmer.

As per King Curtis’s “Memphis Soul Stew,” all the ingredients are clearly listed: half a teacup of bass, a pound of fatback drums, four tablespoons of boilin’ Memphis guitar, a little pinch of organ and half a pint of horns. Now all they need is a good crowd to really light the gas up in this piece.

Sweet Low Down and the Zoo City Players make their red-velvet concert debut this Friday in a specially redecorated upstairs at the Union Hall. 9:30 PM. $3.

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