Get to know Love Light Orchestra, Memphis’ rhythm and blues big band
Love Light Orchestra, Memphis’ rhythm and blues big band, returns to the stage this week for the first time in two years.
The band’s concert on February 18 at the Germantown Performing Arts Center will include celebrating the release of their new album, “Leave the Light On,” debuting a batch of original songs, and rebooting a project that was l one of the highlights of the Memphis music scene in recent years.
For singer and band co-founder John Németh — his solo career has seen him become a star in the contemporary blues world — it’s a welcome return to a passion project.
“When we get together and play, they inspire me and I feel like I inspire them and we create something inspiring for all of us to love,” Németh said.
“That was always the idea behind this band.”
Launched in 2015 by Németh, guitarist Joe Restivo, trumpeter Marc Franklin — both members of retro soul band The Bo-Keys — Love Light Orchestra is a retro ensemble. Named after Bobby “Blue” Bland’s hit “Turn On Your Love Light”, the band’s heavy sound takes music back to the days when Memphis R&B bands, fronted by Willie Mitchell, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, Al Jackson Sr. and Phineas Newborn Sr. were kings.
The origin of the project dates back to 2014, when Németh recorded his album “Memphis Grease” with Restivo and Franklin of the Bo-Keys.
“We had always talked about doing a blues band thing,” Restivo said. “It’s a specific style. It’s not a big Chicago blues. It’s a Memphis thing, but we also found additional inspiration in the early 50s work of the Duke/Peacock labels (based in Houston). Basically we were focusing on early records made by guys like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Little Junior Parker and BB King.
With Németh on vocals, Restivo on guitar and Franklin on lead trumpet and arrangements, the trio grew to 10 pieces, adding a murderous line-up of local musicians that included Tim Goodwin on double bass, Earl Lowe on drums and Gerald Stephens at the keys; plus a horn section completed by Kirk Smothers on bari sax, Art Edmaiston on tenor sax and Jason Yasinsky on trombone.
Originally conceived as a side project playing local venues, by 2017 the band had gotten serious, releasing their debut album – a live recording, capturing the big band in the tiny confines of Cooper Young’s Bar DKDC – and touring the festivals across the country.
In 2019, Love Light Orchestra started working on a second album, a true studio album focusing on the original material.
“The first record was pretty much all covers, with one or two originals, and that was the flip side,” Restivo said. “We wanted to write original songs in the style of this music that we loved.
“Me, Marc and John would write things on our own, then help each other finish them, then Marc would arrange them.”
The band recorded the album during a series of sessions in late 2019 and early 2020 in Memphis Magnetic with engineer Adam Hill and studio owner Scott McEwan.
“The actual tracking sessions went quickly – we cut three or four songs per session,” Restivo said. “And we cut everything live on the floor – horns, vocals, everything. That was one of the reasons we wanted to do Magnetic, because it’s a big venue and it can fit everyone. world, so we could do it live.
For Restivo, the sessions were easy in part because the band is so steeped in the post-war, post-big band uptown blues idiom.
“Everyone in this band is very familiar with that style. Everybody’s pretty much been playing this music and genre their whole life,” he said. “A bunch of guys are veterans of Bobby Bland’s band, so they played with the real master. You don’t have to explain anything to these guys. Very little direction or production to do when we’re recording. Everyone knows the score.
Before the album was completed, however, the Covid-19 pandemic put the band’s work on hold. “It was only three sessions to break the whole record, and then the pandemic hit and it all stopped,” Restivo said. “And it took a long time to mix and master it.”
Even before the pandemic, the band’s bassist, Tim Godwin, a music professor at the University of Memphis, fell ill. Matthew Wilson, from Németh’s band, came in and completed the balance of the tracks.
Sadly, Godwin passed away in September.
The new album is dedicated to him.
“He was a teacher and a mentor to many of us in the band,” Restivo said.
Amid the pandemic, the rest of the group experienced their own issues. “Our pianist had a flesh-eating disease that was almost fatal, John had a serious illness, some of us caught Covid,” Restivo said. “We been through some bullshit, man. It was a little crazy.
Finally, in 2021, the band returned to the album, mixing the tracks with Grammy-winning engineer Matt Ross-Spang at Sam Phillips Recording.
For Németh, “Leave the Light On”, offers a chance to explore a completely different facet of his singing. “The thing about Love Light Orchestra is the complexity of the harmonies. It also allows me to tap into my complex world of harmonies,” Németh said. “When I sing with this band, I change my approach without even thinking about it. It’s unconscious.”
“This music has a lot of swing, and the placement of the swing is awesome,” Németh added. “Especially with Earl’s drumming – his connection to the great Bobby Bland is super obvious. We all do our thing in style naturally; we’re not trying to recreate anything.
Franklin, meanwhile, leads a brawny five-piece horn section – which now includes trumpeter Paul McKinney – delivering a dazzling array of arrangements on the new disc.
“It’s a lot more fun when there are more guys to write for,” Franklin said. “With these arrangements, there’s space in there vertically and horizontally, we can separate into two distinct groups [of horns] and do two different things at once.
Friday’s show at GPAC will see Love Light Orchestra celebrate the release of the new record and return to the stage after a hiatus of more than two years.
So far the album – which is released by roots label NOLA Blue – has generated strong ratings and received airplay on terrestrial and satellite radio, which the band hopes will get them on the road show.
“This band has such a big connection here in Memphis, but every time we’ve played out of town, that connection has been the same,” Németh said.
“We would all really like to take this band to Europe and see the reaction there. The blues is really all over the world now. We all think this particular style being played deserves more exposure.”