The Bluesy Garage Souls of The Congregation

July 5th, 2011

It’s no joke that The Congregation is one The Chicago Tribune’s “11 Bands to Watch in 2011.” This “soul octet” is highly professional. The self-proclaimed “bluesy garage soul” band made an exhausting 4th of July weekend tour starting with a live performance on Windy City LIVE morning show to Martyr‘s in the evening where I saw them. Then, finally, to The Taste of Chicago on Saturday the last day of the festival. It’s eight-member ensemble includes a three-piece horn section, Charlie Wayne’s loose, but keen electric guitar, and vocal steam engine, Gina Bloom. Adding to the nostalgia of the group’s musical influences, a surprise flash-mob-like swing-dancing class kept the dance floor hopping for the evening.

The Congregation members are no amateurs. They play the old-fashioned way with real instruments and unapologetic vocals. Songs like “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “He’s Gone,” “Have You Seen My Baby” are inspired by the band’s influences: Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, Aretha Franklin and Bo Diddley, but that range doesn’t begin to describe the live experience. As soon as the stage lights go up at Martyrs late last Friday night, the room swells with one of the band’s harder rock songs likely influenced by the dynamo guitarist’s punk roots. Bloom’s voice is like a riptide. It doesn’t just hold up to blues rock songs. It’s aggressive but never out of control. The band members must know the fine line they walk between the Bloom’s soulful voice and the head banging vengeful wrath of Wayne’s guitar.

Raised on Motown and Philly soul, Bloom has strangely mastered her punk rock scream but brims with blues and jazz styles, at one point scatting her way through a punk rock chorus and then slowing it down to a blues rhythm. This is when Bloom shines as a soul singer. She compares more to Aretha Franklin than Billie Holiday because of the heavy rhythm section, but Bloom also makes waves as a punk vocalist with more range than Joan Jett but just as much hardcore femininity.

Always remember that the headlining act at a concert performs last, but at least one of the early acts was a gem. Playing just before The Congregation was St. Bernadette featuring lead singer, Meredith DiMenna, from Connecticut whose sound recalls Stevie Nicks, Pat Benatar, Heart, and Janis Joplin sound – the Rock Goddesses as Oprah Winfrey calls them. Her tambourine and flowery mini dress seals her hippie uniform. Bloom and DiMenna together would have brought down the house with their rawness.

The Congregation recently released their self-titled debut EP, “Not for Sleepin’” in December of 2010. Sample music and follow the band to their next gig.

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