Kings Court 

Multi-talented musician Kelli Strawbridge steps out with a new R&B project.

click to enlarge Multi-instrumentalists Kelli Strawbridge of the Big Payback and DJ Harrison chill at the local Jellowstone studios.

Scott Elmquist

Multi-instrumentalists Kelli Strawbridge of the Big Payback and DJ Harrison chill at the local Jellowstone studios.

It’s a long trip from the back of the stage to the front — and an equally daunting journey from cover-band frontman to individual artist.

But this is Kelli Strawbridge’s time.

For more than a decade he’s been laying down a percussive foundation on drums for Yo Mama’s Brass Band, Charles Owen’s Trio and the Mekong Express, while honing charismatic stagecraft by channeling early James Brown in the tribute band the Big Payback.

The results of that long, hardworking apprenticeship are on full display in his new self-titled CD, “Kings” from Jellowstone.

“I got frustrated when I realized that I hadn’t put out anything,” Strawbridge says. “I’m surrounded by all of these people — Dusty Simmons, Daniel Clarke, D.J. Williams — who are doing all of these great projects. And I hadn’t done anything.”

Most of all it was Devonne Harris. A fellow drummer, six years younger than Strawbridge, he came to town and almost immediately starting coloring outside the drum lines — playing keyboards, and, as DJ Harrison, putting out mix tapes of imaginative hip-hop-flavored beats. “I was intrigued,” Strawbridge says.

Despite the difference in age and that they played the same instrument, they became friends and collaborators. “You don’t meet many people that write that much, let alone play so many instruments,” Strawbridge says. “He’s amazing — it’s not fair.”

Strawbridge’s individualistic songs grew organically from Harris’ deeply layered instrumental mixes. The songs range from funky modern to evocations of romantic soul of the ’70s, floating over a dense, decidedly modern sonic understructure.

“We are just trying to emulate good music,” Strawbridge says. “Some of it is Donny Hathaway, some kind of trippy. There doesn’t have to be a reason for it. Happy accidents are all over the record.”

“I love Kelli,” says Reggie Pace, co-leader of the No BS Brass band and, with Harris, founder of the Jellowstone Records. “He’s not following the typical R&B recycling approach. His sound is so cool and unique.”

The album features a crowd of area musicians, including all the members of Butcher Brown, vocalist Armando Munoz, and master trumpeter and rapper Marcus Tenney. Although many of the tracks were long-recorded, the addition of lyrics reshapes their context. And there weren’t a lot of takes.

“The songs came in this form,” Strawbridge says. “I definitely wanted to keep simple, lyrically, while leaving a bit of bite that makes you want to come back to [it]. It was like a workshop to get my writing together, to figure out what kind of stories I want to tell. There is a different feel, different character to every track.”

The result is raw and personal, as much honest sweat as studio gloss. “The music I hear, the music I love, is soulful because it is not perfect,” Strawbridge says. “It is chock full of moments, little things. You have to leave that. You have to leave your stamp.”

Strawbridge embodies the blue-collar ethos of Jellowstone. He may play James Brown with total commitment, but there’s more to the music than fame.

“This record is not only a tribute the legends but to the forgotten ones,” he says. “They might never have been the guy. There is always someone in the back who was ready all the time, but they never got their shot.”

“I know it’s a risk, but I just want to do my music,” Strawbridge says. “Send it out to the universe. It’s gratifying to see that people are enjoying it.”

Kings performs at the Camel on May 8 at 9 p.m. with Kalen and the Sky Thieves.

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