Soundcheck: Poppa Foster and The Grits - Gravy Baby 

Led by a neighborhood legend, the Tulsa roustabouts go all-out for a hot-buttered banquet for the ears on their vinyl debut.

click to enlarge Album art for Poppa Foster and The Grits debut album Gravy Baby

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Album art for Poppa Foster and The Grits debut album Gravy Baby

This is the one.

For many years, Christopher Foster has been a rambling Tulsan, bringing his New Orleans ivory tickling and bandleading to a bustling assortment of musical projects. Not often the type to take the spotlight, he has lent his funky Southern ear to produce local recordings for the likes of Dane and The Soup and Winston Churchbus. Even as banjo strumming frontman of ragtag powerhouse Green Corn Rebellion (not to be confused with Green Corn Revival, the band that spawned Jared Deck onto the Oklahoma City scene), Foster keeps a modest stage demeanor that can fool casual spectators into underappreciating his compositional genius. What a mistake that is.

On Gravy Baby, the debut LP by Poppa Foster and The Grits, Christopher Foster goes big with his latest creative venture. Culled to a tight nine tracks and pressed on 160-gram vinyl, it is a gumbo pot of a record blending over 20 performance ingredients from prolific Tulsa musicians. Savory cuts of blues, roots rock and brass band influences simmer with Foster’s soulful and occasionally oddball songwriting spices. The recordings sizzle with jamboree adrenaline thanks to the solid mixing and mastering. This is a label-grade dish even if it is a fully independent release.

There are plenty of clues that this is an unsigned project, though. A marketing team would likely question the smudgy potatoes and brown gravy that adorn the vinyl’s center label. Lead single “Dervish,” for all of its catchy, high-octane rock and roll, has a low-budget music video that captures the energy but not the spectacle of its recording. The tracking is also a bit messy, a worthwhile symptom of the band’s kitchen-sink style but one that jumps all over its spectrum of moods.

It wouldn’t be a Foster record without some degree of unkempt do-it-yourself resilience though. His scruffy-whiskered demeanor cleaned up in Sunday morning hat and cane reads like a hobo Buster Keaton, and while his voice is as clear as it has ever been on Gravy Baby, it stops short of being polished. There is too much character in his vocal scuffs for such treatment.

It should be emphasized that this is no solo outing. The Grits at its core on this record are Jordan Hehl and Matt Teegarden on bass and drums, and beyond them well over a dozen supporting players include Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s Chris Combs and Matt Leland. Poppa Foster can, yes, hold his own as a solo act — he slipped a collection of beautifully personal demo-style tunes onto Bandcamp a while back — but his spirit takes flight in the company of others.

Highlights are plentiful on Gravy Baby. “Hard to Get” pairs old-school rhythm and blues horns with funk-gospel piano to take fun structural turns, ending in an infectious fanfare of saxophone and guitar solos, hand claps, and a shouted choral refrain. “Paycheck Rag” has fun with ironing out its swing time rhythm only to flop back into its floor-dragging poor man’s shuffle when the money’s gone again.

What takes the cake, though, is the uplifting communal energy of it all. There are strains of sadness and loneliness in Foster’s lyrics, but with the support of a full family of artists, those concerns feel far away. If ever there was a record that captured the dynamic of what music means to him, this is the one.

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Evan Jarvicks

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