“Midnight Train,” a fiery track from local funk and soul outfit Mama K and the Shades, opens with smoldering intensity. The velvety falsetto of vocalist Willie Barnes cascades over a melancholy keyboard progression, setting up the dusky alto of Kelsey “Mama K” Garcia to lead us on an ominous backwoods journey. She beseeches listeners to embrace the darkness pressing in on all sides, to surrender to the night, to get outside ourselves and find “a brand new connection to the ground.”
The song builds, weaving a beautiful interplay of voices, lifted in three-part harmony, answered by subdued pulses from a three-piece horn section. Then the saxophone breaks free, blazing through a series of solos. The band follows, layering sound into a magnificently restrained cacophony. The train bursts back into the station five minutes later, breathless from the ride.
The song is a poignant moment in the middle of “Honey Made,” the band’s remarkable debut released in late February. The album was born out of an intense, devastating loss, but amazingly, “Honey Made” doesn’t dwell in despair. Instead, it’s an exuberant celebration of life that soars with promise.
On July 11, Mama K and the Shades came in with a wall of sound when they took the outdoor stage at Empire Garage. The backline shook the crowd with wicked funk grooves punctuated with horn blasts while the three singers holding down the front danced madly and unleashed a barrage of spirit-raising soulful hooks. Coming together in polyrhythms and structured harmonies, the large ensemble seemed to move as one. The energy was explosive as they implored the crowd to dance away the midsummer sluggishness, to release their bodies in something akin to the ecstasy of praise.
Then, the mood shifted. As cool blue light bathed the stage, and the band drifted into the wistful instrumental intro to “Midnight Train.” The song was one of the first written by Garcia and the group’s co-founder, saxophonist David McKnight, at a makeshift kitchen-top recording studio, and, Garcia explained, it was McKnight’s signature jam.
It was hot, humid. The monsoon spring that swept through Central Texas, bringing unusually cool temperatures and startling bursts of green, had faded to memory as the predictable drudgery of Austin’s toughest season returned. But the band was still reeling in the wake of the storms. Two weeks earlier, on June 27, they lost McKnight to the swollen river in San Marcos when he failed to resurface during a post-gig swim. This was their first show without him.
“He made us,” Garcia said from the stage, her voice catching slightly. Before the gig, she said, the band draped articles of McKnight’s clothing around the stage, calling his presence into the space. A cap he wore the night he died hung on her mic stand. It was emblazoned with the red letters N.E.R.D., the name of Pharrell Williams’ skate funk outfit.
An unearthly energy filled the club. Still reeling from loss, the band was diving deep into the music, letting the songs carry them as if their own lives depended on it. And in that moment, who knows, maybe they did.
No-one ever really dies
A week after the Empire show, in the dim ambience of Dominican Joe’s coffee shop, Garcia and drummer Chris Barnes recount the band’s origin story. A lifelong musician who grew up in the church, McKnight played with multiple bands around town, most notably Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. But as he neared the end of his twenties he grew weary of support roles. He met Garcia when she sang a cover song for another one of his bands, and the two immediately clicked.
“He quit the band and asked me to come over and write some lyrics to some tracks he had,” she says. “Then within two days we had like three songs completed.”
McKnight set up shop in Garcia’s kitchen so the two could work. She was 21 at the time and her musical experience was limited to high school show choir. He pushed her. “He’d be like, ‘You know that piano there. You can use it,’” she says. “He actually started teaching me piano so I had more to practice to and (it) made writing a lot easier.”
When a roommate moved out, McKnight moved in. He began to handpick the band that would become the Shades from musicians he’d jammed with through the years. He loved jazz piano and saxophone. Initially those sounds defined the band, but when he recruited Barnes, along with his brother Willie, a vocalist, the two veterans of a heavy metal band amped things up.
The group began to gel around a sound somewhere between the deep pocket funk jams of Sly and the Family Stone and Kool and the Gang and the rollicking blues rock of Tedeschi Trucks.
The band rapidly developed a familial feel. They began to play out in summer 2014, tiny gigs at first, but with buckets of soul they quickly built a following. Four months in they sold out the inside stage at Stubb’s. “We had it at max capacity in like five minutes,” Barnes says, noting that the band “skyrocketed” past the Anti-Scene, his 6-year-old metal band.
“People like the funk,” he says. “It’s a dance party.”
Everyone in the band began to sense something special was going on, particularly McKnight, who was determined that the band would take him to the pinnacle of musical recognition: the Grammy Awards.
“That’s all he talked about,” Barnes says. “Can’t wait til I get my Grammy, I’m gonna wear it around my neck like a necklace.”
Award show bling aside, McKnight tended to dress down. Even when he dressed up, he wrapped his head in a doo-rag, often topped with a hat. His band members don’t remember seeing him wear the N.E.R.D. hat before, but they teased him about it the night he died. “What’s up, nerd?” was the running refrain for the evening.
After their coffeehouse gig in San Marcos, they went to the headwaters of the city’s namesake river, a place they frequented after shows. No one knows exactly when McKnight went missing, but shortly before midnight, panicking, Garcia called the police. For two hours the frantic band mates searched alongside officials from the city’s fire and police departments and a volunteer recovery team before they were sent home. “They were like, ‘Thank you for your help but we have to take it from here,’” Garcia says.
In denial, Garcia took McKnight’s clothes back to the house they shared. She told herself he was arrested. Something stupid had happened. He was fine. He’d be home soon.
David Curtis McKnight’s body was found the following morning. Drowned. A life of promise, full of beautiful songs, was cut short at 30 years.
For a week, Garcia opened her home. She set up an altar in McKnight’s room. She invited his friends and family, anyone who knew him, to come and mourn, play music, do anything they needed. At the end of the week they hosted an honor jam and folks from all eras of McKnight’s musical life — from the Honeybears to his childhood church bands — dropped by. “Our house could have been floating. The energy was so high in there,” Garcia says.
For the first time in a week the band began to feel relief. “We could tell he was there,” she says.
The day after McKnight died, the band’s guitarist made a connection about the hat that still brings them comfort.
N.E.R.D. is an acronym. It stands for No-one Ever Really Dies.
‘We’ve gotta win a Grammy’
In August, the band hosts a memorial show at Red 7. They sell out the club. Guitarist Johnny Storbeck’s mother makes buttons with McKnight’s face for band members to wear. They raise over $5,000 to send to McKnight’s family to help with funeral expenses, but the real tribute in the works is the album he never got to make. Before McKnight’s death, Garcia says, the band was procrastinating. “Now we’re just like it’s time. It’s time,” she says.
In December, the band holes up at Yellow Dog Studios, which is in a converted house at the end of a remote dirt road in Wimberley. They record in sections, and during their down time they wander winding trails that lead to a nearby creek. After each day’s recordings they jam late into the night, then bunk in lofted bedrooms above the studio.
The band is tighter than ever. Sure they have arguments, but “there’s never going to be a tear between the friendships,” Barnes says. “I mean, when the pallbearers are your band members that’s a connection.”
They all feel confident that McKnight would have wanted them to keep going.
“I don’t think that any of us, when it happened, had a thought that the band was going to break up,” vocalist Nnedi Agbaroji says.
But they still haven’t found a permanent saxophone player. They use fill-ins for gigs and tapped three players to contribute McKnight’s prominent parts on the album.
“One of his heroes, his all-time favorite sax players, happens to be my uncle,” Barnes says.
He says McKnight “freaked out” when he discovered his drummer’s musical family included acclaimed jazz saxophone player and Blue Note recording artist Everett Harp. “I asked him to play on the album,” Barnes says, “so we got McKnight’s hero to play on the album.”
They’re also determined to realize McKnight’s grand dream. The second night at the studio there’s a meteor shower visible in the country sky.
“I saw like 30 meteors and wished for a Grammy on each one,” Barnes says.
‘Here come the Shades’
One afternoon in February, college students are scattered on blankets along the grassy bank by the side of the river in San Marcos taking advantage of the freakishly warm winter weather. Every now and then someone jumps in, slicing through the water with a graceful dive or spraying it everywhere with a cannonball. The water is high and moving fast. A woman swims in long, strong strokes against the swift current. A kayak glides by while she remains suspended in place. Watching her is hypnotic.
“It’s nice that this is still here and such a serene place, so it’s not like torture to come back to,” Garcia says. Some of her band mates still avoid it, but this has always been one of Garcia’s favorite places in Texas.
Garcia meditates on the river as an age-old metaphor for the ever-changing nature of life that runs through all forms of art. “There’s a lot of serenity with water,” she says.
She hikes up her miniskirt to reveal a pair of biker shorts. She slides the skirt under her sweater and ties it around her chest like a tube top, then gingerly wades into the stream. She crouches down in the water and lets the current carry her backward 20 feet.
Earlier in the month she moved out of the house she shared with McKnight. It was a bittersweet transition. “A lot of change happened in the house and also our band kind of formed in that house,” she says.
Closing that chapter in her life stung, but she was ready to move on. “I know McKnight’s going to go with the music with me and not just be in that space,” she says.
A couple weeks before the CD release party, the band gets to hear the tracks with Everett Harp’s saxophone solos, including “Midnight Train.”
“I might have cried,” Barnes says, glancing away with a smile. McKnight’s spirit haunts the tracks through the elder horn player’s sounds. “It sounds like McKnight,” Barnes says.
Barnes never told his successful uncle about his lost friend’s obsession with a certain awards show and the inside jokes about gramophone bling. After he sent the tracks, Harp checked in with his nephew to make sure he was happy with the sound. Barnes confirmed he was.
“And he goes, ‘Great, see you at the Grammys,’” Barnes says.
Barnes shakes his head and smiles.
ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Mama K and the Shades
Band members: Kelsey “Mama K” Garcia, vocals; Nnedi Agbaroji, vocals; Willie Barnes, vocals; David Thacker, keys, Johnny Storbeck, guitar; Lee Braverman, bass; Wesley Gonzales, percussion; Chris Barnes, drums/vocals; Donald McDaniel, trombone; Joseph Morrow, trumpet.
Formed: 2014 (co-founder David McKnight died in June 2015).
Recordings: “Honey Made” 2016.
Shows in March: South by Southwest Music Festival (several appearances); ATX Future Disco 2016 at Austin Roller Rink, 10 p.m. March 19; Sahara Lounge, 9 p.m. March 30.
Online: mamakandtheshades.com. Updates, including a behind-the-scenes video with the band and a performance video, each week in March in the Austin Music Source blog at austin360.com.