From the moment Laura Rain and the Caesars take the stage, they give the impression of a distinctly old-fashioned kind of band. For one thing, the show begins with only the Caesars onstage and Rain nowhere in sight. The band–guitarist George Friend, drummer Ron Pangborn, bassist Gwen Hayes, and keyboard player Phil Hale–lays down some soulful R&B instrumentals. Friend and Hayes smile at each other, playfully trading licks. The band is warming up, but they’re also warming up the crowd for the arrival of the main attraction: Rain herself. After three instrumental tunes and a big windup of an introduction, Rain takes the stage in a red top, a black skirt, metallic gold tights, and high-heeled boots. With a swelling beehive hairdo and cat glasses, she’s an outrageous physical presence to rival another soul master who knew how to make an entrance: James Brown. And when she opens her mouth to sing, Rain easily defends her claim to Brown’s soul legacy.
Though the band is based in the Detroit area, many of its members have worked with remarkable national names. Friend has performed with rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon and blues vocalist Janiva Magness; Hale with R&B legends from Martha Reeves to George Clinton. Pangborn was an original member of the Detroit pop collective Was (Not Was). Rain doesn’t have quite the same list of all-star collaborations under her belt, but music clearly runs in her blood. She was trained as a classical vocalist, but the music of Aretha Franklin drew her to the world of soul, R&B, and funk in her mid-teens. She began sneaking into Detroit clubs to sit in and sing with the bands, and by her early twenties she was singing professionally most nights of the week.
The Caesars’ collective decades of professional experience are evident in their live show. While Pangborn, Hayes, and Hale all do fine work, they’re mostly content to sit back and leave the spotlight on Rain and Friend–who are more than happy to seize it. Rain makes full use of a remarkable vocal range, singing with fiery passion and a sassy outward manner that invite comparisons to Aretha, her childhood inspiration. . As she improvises wildly against the melody line of whatever she’s singing, be it one of the Caesars’ original tunes or a Led Zeppelin or Al Green cover, Hayes and Pangborn give her a solid, unfussy groove to work over.
Occasionally Rain plays flirtatiously off Friend, a compelling player in his own right. There’s personality to spare in Friend’s guitar work even when he’s playing a simple rhythm, and when he solos, he’s a flashy, bluesy force of nature, his body contorting over his guitar while face remains the picture of relaxation.
When this band gets going, it’s hard not to get pulled along by their talent and passion, whether you’re dancing or just tapping your toe.The R&B legends the Caesars emulate would be proud of how the band is carrying the torch.
Laura Rain & the Caesars are at Mash on Nov. 5.