Souls on parade
Like lots of kids in the 1970s, Tahoe Jackson spent hours in the basement, grooving to the music of the era's biggest stars: Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Sly Stone Ñ the performers' hits filled the family's rec room in Oakland, Calif.
But Jackson had a distinct advantage over every other American kid with a turntable: The musicians were actually playing in the basement.
'I'd go down to the basement, and George Benson would be there,' Jackson recalls. 'My brother played bass with Tower of Power, and my sister was a singer, so there was always music Ñ and musicians Ñ at our house. Jaco Pastorius, the bass player for Weather Report, lived in the basement.'
But the musical talent didn't stop with her siblings. After moving to Portland in the mid-'90s, Jackson was just finding an audience for her earthy delivery of soul when she met JR Pella, a Portland native also making his mark as a soul performer at the time.
The rest is musical history. Despite a rough start to what is now a rock-solid friendship, Jackson and Pella merged their remarkable talents to front the six-member group Black Angel. The duo's inspired soul interpretations Ñ a rich, vibrant give-and-take Ñ can be experienced every Thursday evening at Dante's Caffe Italiano downtown and at a variety of other local venues.
The band recently opened for Portland's Pink Martini at the Aladdin Theater in Southeast Portland, where a sold-out New Year's Eve performance capped a three-night run.
China Forbes, lead singer for Pink Martini, says Jackson and Pella have an infectious energy.
'I wasn't feeling well during the Aladdin shows,' Forbes says. 'So I asked JR, 'How do you perform when you just don't want to?' He said, 'I just own the song,' and Tahoe jumped in with: 'Just sing it with soul!' Basically, they're having so much fun, and putting so much heart into what they do, you can't help but love it Ñ they create a party.'
Rock 'n' roll high school
Unlike Jackson, Pella didn't grow up surrounded by flesh-and-blood influences. Nonetheless, his musical tastes stood out from his classmates like a nun at an AC/DC concert.
'It was the Iron Maiden period Ñ 'hesher high,' ' Pella says with a laugh, referring to his formative years at Madison High School in Northeast Portland. Despite the headbanger environment, he recalls an early affinity for the work of singers such as Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae and Dinah Washington.
'Obviously, I was different because I liked soul,' he says, bursting into a medley of the songs that inspire him, to the delight of nearby diners.
'We met seven years ago at La Luna,' Pella says of his first encounter with Jackson. 'I was in the midst of a seven-year pout. The group I was in, Drunk at Abi's, had broken up, and I was up for something new.'
Like Pella, Jackson was disenchanted with her current group and ready for a fresh start. Despite the auspicious timing, the duo's first attempts at sharing the stage were less than harmonic.
'It was a bumpy ride at first,' Pella says. 'Performing defined who I was. Sharing the stage with Tahoe was a threat to me; I'd never encountered it before.'
Egos were eventually smoothed by the growth of their friendship, largely fueled by a shared passion for soul. Also helpful: the fact that their combined sound is pure vocal magic. Jackson's throaty, sensuous voice is perfectly countered by Pella's raw-edged stylings.
The only thing missing was the audience.
'We were shot down by a lot of people when Black Angel first started,' Jackson says of Portland's original resistance to their sound. 'A lot of clubs would have preferred to have chairs stacked on the tables than to feature soul.
'We'd lie and tell them we were a rock or fusion band,' she says. 'No one could get it through their heads that we didn't do funk. They thought soul had to be spoofed Ñ like a white guy in an Afro wig.'
'Luckily, the best things in Portland happen without calculation,' Pella says of Black Angel's origins. 'The DJ-trip hop thing that happened from '96 to '99 was fading; people were ready for something else.'
As it happens, their music was that something else.
'It was good timing,' Pella says. 'Audiences liked our sound; we're not slick Ñ we have an edge, but at the same time it's very smooth.'
Grooving in the studio
Entertainers in every sense of the word, Jackson and Pella don't hide behind the anonymity of the microphone and cover songs. Pella's impassioned stage presence balances Jackson's laid-back cool. Both are inspired by the personal truth of their music.
'About 85 percent of what we do is our own stuff,' Pella says. 'Tahoe has taught me to slow down and write songs that explore what we all experience: despair, loneliness Ñ and sometimes,' he adds with a smile, 'a little joy.'
Not content to rest on their local laurels, Black Angel recently secured Seattle bookings and is at work on its first CD. The recording experience is a necessary evil, says Pella, who also works at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in North Portland. 'When you record, it's hard to capture the intensity you get when you're live. But it's a better final productÑ there are very few live recordings that are better than studio recordings.'
Despite the pressure of consistent performances and their work in the studio, Black Angel continues to soar.
Says Jackson: 'People ask, 'How can you play every week? You'll burn out!' But we connect with our audience. We have a passion to tell our story, and that never gets old.'
A personal goal also underscores her ambition: 'I'd like to inspire little girls to say, 'I want to be a soul singer; I want to be powerful and tell my story.' '
Pella adds, 'We want to take people on a journey, to put on a show that's pure.'