Both prolific voices of early soul, Irma Thomas and Lee Fields could easily settle into the regal (if somewhat static) role of icons, content to channel yesteryear. He—known through the ‘70s as “Little J.B.” for his vocal resemblance to James Brown—could play legacy shows. She—best known for "Time is on My Side," famously covered by the Rolling Stones—could reissue hits.
In a tour called ‘Blues at the Crossroads,’ this pairing of soul survivors brings the tunes from soul music’s classic era — think record labels like Stax, Chess, King and Atlantic — and revives them for the modern day. But when the two co-headline the Wells Fargo Center on Feb. 8, don’t expect a carbon-copy throwback. Fields may have invoked the Godfather of Soul with somersaulting sax lines and hopscotching synths in 1978, but now, boasting releases on red-hot labels like Daptone, Soul Fire and Truth & Soul, he’s stepped out of Brown’s fast-footed shadow. Accompanied in the studio by Truth & Soul house band the Expressions, his pliable voice no longer races to fit skipping funk beats but languishes—long, loud and clear—in sparse ballads about temptation (“Faithful Man”) and groove-tastic sunny-day cruisers (“You’re the Kind of Girl”), all wah-wah bounces and echoing anthems about love, “just a stone’s throw away.”
Thomas has also spent the last 10 years building on her early career, when she ruled New Orleans airwaves with her 1964 single "Wish Someone Would Care." No longer the bell-voiced young woman who bled infatuation to skipping drum lines (“Breakaway”) or heartbreak to a crew of kindly shooping back-ups (“Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)”), she released After the Rain in 2006 and promptly won her first-ever Grammy. Distributed only months after Hurricane Katrina, the album delves deep, slow and jazzy into themes of place and displacement; “Another Man Done Gone” combines hushed beats and heartbeat-low cello with lines like “the water’s at his door / he couldn’t stay no more” to chilling effect, while “In the Middle of It All” mixes organ-like keys with quiet meditations on loss, culminating in the statement “it looks like my levee’s about to fall.”
Appearing alongside relative newbies Eric Kraso and Alecia Chakour, Thomas and Fields will both showcase careers, and vocals, that have only deepened as the decades have rolled. Don’t call them icons; there’s nothing static about these two legends of soul.