Listen Up: Nakia & His Southern Cousins

In a small room off the beaten path at this year’s SXSW I found a big voice. Austin singer-songwriter Nakia took possession of the room that night, his rich and brawny voice shifting effortlessly from a soulful ballad to a R&B rave-up. Ably backed by his top-notch band the Southern Cousins, it was a highlight of the conference. Once back in Boston the ep that I picked up that night sat on my desk for a few weeks. All too often a thrilling live performer can’t capture the magic in the studio and I wanted some time to savor the memory of that special show. When I finally put the ep in the player I made a delightful discovery: I was wrong. Album opener “Down in a Pinch” gets things moving immediately with a free-wheeling groove, punctuated by a tasty slide guitar solo for some extra flavor. The slide guitar finds even greater prominence in “Broken Spoke,” itself a rollicking blend of R&B and rock that recalls early Allman Brothers. “Playing the Cards” bristles with a southern barroom swing. Guitar and piano battle riff for riff only to be trumped by Nakia pleading “dealer won’t you hit me one last time please, I’ve got a feeling that my luck will change.” Mixed in among the Nakia originals are two choice covers. Monte Warden’s “Making It Up to my Baby” is a classic R&B ballad. Had it been written 20 years ago it would no doubt have been a hit for Otis Redding or Solomon Burke. Nakia makes it is own, however, with a warmth and authenticity that builds to an emphatic final verse. The album closer is a faithful cover of Billy Preston’s classic “That’s the Way God Planned It.” Somewhere up in heaven Preston is looking down fondly and grinning from ear to ear.

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