He looks like the bespectacled bank teller/accountant-in-training he was up until March. But when Paul Janeway climbs onstage and opens his mouth, a '70s soulman comes tumbling out. The Birmingham, Ala., native (nicknamed St. Paul by his bandmates for his tee-totaling habits) is carrying on a tradition that began at Alabama's Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in 1969 — the gold standard for soul purveyors including Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Janeway and his band, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, recreate the sound, but with all original material.
On the strength of its December 2012 demo/EP debut, Greetings From St Paul and the Broken Bones, the band, who will perform at the Chop Shop on Oct. 31, was invited to a showcase slot at this year's SXSW. When Janeway asked for time off, his banker boss told him it was either them or us. "I just took a leap of faith," Janeway says of his decision to quit his job and drop out of college a semester shy of getting his accounting degree. "We ended up with a booking agent and I immediately was busy after that. It's been a really interesting ride."
Like many of the soul greats, Janeway has a gospel background. Raised in a Pentecostal family, he brings the fire and fervor of a holy-roller camp meeting to his performances, flailing about in a sweaty frenzy, hi-stepping in the spirit. He may not be as agile and graceful as James Brown — yet — but he puts body and soul into his performances, making converts wherever he goes.
"People are surprised the way I sound," Janeway chuckles. "We'll play a new spot, they hear that first note — you hear gasps. You hear people going, 'What the hell just happened?' Any time I hear that, I'm like, 'We got 'em. It'll be a good show.'"
Janeway is well aware that the bar is higher for wannabe soulmen following in the footsteps of Otis and Pickett. "I think we're just kind of stupid," Janeway laughs. "We're just fearless, just stupid in that we're like, 'yeah, we'll do an Otis Redding song' or 'yeah, we'll do a Wilson Pickett song.'"
The band doesn't record covers. But with only 38 minutes of original material, going from opening act to headliner, with an hour-and-a-half slot to fill onstage, recently they've been covering Redding's entire '65 classic album, Otis Blue, which contains "Satisfaction," "Respect" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long." "You do kind of the same sets sometimes, it's just somethin' different for us, throw a changeup," Janeway says. "I think Charlotte'll be the last time we do that," he laughs. "It's a lot of work."
Although it's a bit early to think about his legacy, Janeway doesn't mince words about his ultimate goal. "Marvin Gaye said the goal for any singer, and me personally, is immortality. If you sing in a public setting, it's to be remembered forever. I don't think I'm there, at all, but I'm sayin' that's gotta be your goal, or you just need to stick to singing in the bathtub."