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Jim Drake’s Entertainment Blog: Deep soul and rare records: Ural Thomas and the Pain plays HR

A unique R&B-soul band is coming to Hood River on Friday, Feb. 13, and even if you’re superstitious, we should be treating this show like it’s our lucky day.

If you’re into the 60s classic soul era, like the songs on the Atlantic Rhythm and Blues series which features artists like Ray Charles and Otis Redding, you’ll really enjoy Ural Thomas and the Pain.

One reason that this band has such a classic sound is the lead singer, Ural Thomas, played music during that classic 60s era. He is 74 years old, and he’s still performing.

When I think about his age, I’m amazed by the fact that he’s older, by 20 years or more, than most of my 78-rpm records that I’ve been recently archiving into my digital music library.

I have found that when a record of that speed and age is played, there’s an indescribable feeling that happens when you listen to it. It’s truly like being transported back to a different era.

When I interviewed the Pain’s bandleader and drummer Scott Magee I wasn’t surprised to find out that it was his encounter of finding the rare, out-of-print records of Ural Thomas in a Portland record shop that led him to put this band together last year. I guess you could say his sole (soul?) purpose was to bring back the ‘deep soul’ music, as he called it, of a singer with decades of experience, but one who had not much in the way of national recognition over his career.

“My friend who owns Mississippi Records had reissued some of Ural’s lesser known songs, one of which had limited release in almost complete obscurity. We had a conversation about Ural’s music one day, and he knew I was a drummer, and I mentioned how it would be a dream come true situation to play with someone like Ural. The owner thought that Ural would actually be interested in getting back out onstage again, and put me in touch with him,” Scott Magee said.

What seems to make Ural Thomas and the Pain unique is the age difference in band members. Magee is 40-ish, and most folks in the 10-piece band are half that age. Yet it’s the music that really brings it all together.

“Well, I’m the band leader and music director and the drummer, from where I sit I’ve seen the project grow and the generational aspect of it is really interesting. We have a saxaphonist who is 22, I’m in the middle at 40, Ural is 74, and I think the level of talent in the band is very high, so age has kind of transcended that situation. Ural, who has all this experience under his belt, and has an amazing talent for singing and performing, and really brought the whole group into a family of sorts. We’ve become very close, so there’s a strong bond that’s taken place. There’s fifty years of experience between band members, and it’s pretty unusual,” Magee said.

Ural Thomas and the Pain was recently featured on OPB’s Oregon Artbeat, and several high-quality videos are online that, according to Magee, “was a good way to let people see what we’re like.” The Pain’s sound was eerily similar to a compilation called the Atlantic Rhythm and Blues series, a multi-CD box set that celebrates soul and R&B music.

“That’s the sound we were going for, if we can hit that level, then I’m going to be very happy about it,” Magee said.

Magee said the instrumentation for the band was something he had in mind from the beginning, because he wanted to recreate the sound of 60s soul. So having horns and female backup singers, and a rhythm section with organ and piano was essential.

“The general picture was planned and then certain people fell into place later, as we started performing. And now we’ve been a solid lineup for well over a year,” Magee said.

But this band did not want to get classified as a typical bar or wedding band, so Magee made sure when the setlist included cover songs, they are so obscure that they may sound like original music.

“Our show is about one third original. Ural has a history of writing and recording, for the most part in the mid 60s to the early 70s, when he was active in studios working with other collaborators, with people such as Mary Wells and Brenda Holloway. The covers are chosen very specifically to match the sound and power of what he can do with his own songs, but not make it sound like a typical cover band, so we don’t play hits,” Magee said.

Magee said that since he’s a record collector and self-described “deep soul lover,” his record collection was used to find material that would suit Ural’s voice and the band’s classic sound.

“Essentially, if you’ve never heard us before, you might not be able to tell the difference between the songs that are covers, or originals, and we’ve designed it that way,” Magee said.

Ural Thomas’s best known record among collectors is called “Pain is the Name of Your Game.” His work history includes playing on the same circuit as James Brown and writing songs for artists like Hank Ballard.

“It’s a song that’s collected in the soul world, and there’s people out there who know and love the song, especially in Europe, and England. He’s got a live LP that came out in the early 70s on the Revue label, and it was done in Seattle with a backing band of teenagers that were really talented players. He played a concert and they put it out on album, and it’s really kind of bizarre,” Magee said.

“And then he’s got some stuff with the doo-wop band the Monterey’s, that he did even before all of this. He did a song called the “Push-Em Up,” and that’s really limited in number of copies, and I believe only came out on a 45. Ural wouldn’t be seen as a prolific artist, but definitely a collectable soul artist that fits in that niche of northern soul or deep soul,” Magee said.

Magee said that he can only imagine what kind of energy Ural had when he was in his 20s, based on his high energy contributions to the band today.

“He moved to the Northwest when he was five, so he’s a Portlander, for sure. He’s never really stopped doing music, he’s just done things that has been either collaborations, or he hosts a jam at his house that he’s done every Sunday that’s been going on for 20 years. He’s stayed active, but for years he really didn’t have a name for himself on stage —you know, he would play in a Cajun band playing washboard and singing, or he’s a guest artist with some kind of project. He’s always stayed engaged in music,” Magee said.

Magee said the band is currently making a record and the process is going “really well.”

“We’re going to record a number of Ural’s songs from his past. We’re not going to recreate the stuff that was done well, because it stands alone and it’s really good, but we’re not trying to one-up it or recreate it,” Magee said.

“The new record should be done in about a year, and it’s being done completely live, without a computer, so it’s essentially we’re making records the way they used to be.”

It was interesting to hear Magee talk about the band’s first practice with Ural about one year ago.

“It was amazing. I had high hopes. So I assembled the whole band, telling them look, here’s a chance to be playing with someone on a level that we wouldn’t normally be able to play with, so let’s learn his material really great, and knock him out, that was the point.

So we played a couple of songs and the whole band kinda had chills, and then we all looked at each other and there wasn’t much more to do. It really was kind of an indication that it was going to be a real special thing,” Magee said.

“His voice was incredible, and his musicality was fully there, he hadn’t lost anything. For him, I think he experienced a backing sound that he hadn’t experienced in a long time, so he immediately locked in,He has more energy than any of us. He’s like a kid. You’ll see.”



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