Jonathan Meadows is like Aaron Neville and Susan Boyle. His voice doesn’t match the body.
A 30-year-old Southern native who is a member of the Denver band the Congress has a bushy red beard and he swears like hell and sings like an angel.
“I get the same reaction all over the place,” Meadows said. “A lot of times people don’t believe it’s me singing or I don’t know what the hell they think. The appearance thing will fucking throw somebody off and I’ve just got to prove it to them.”
The Congress plays at Lake Tahoe each summer – June 13 it was at Heavenly Village and the next night Crystal Bay Casino – and I’ve always enjoyed the music. Its first album was soulful southern rock. Then it released a mind-blowing record covering American soul music, “The Loft Tapes.” Meadows’ vocals of songs by the Impressions, Donny Hathaway, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye and Roberta Flack are radiant. The band plays in a deliberate, building tempo, allowing the songs to reach a crescendo with Meadows’ high notes.
Meadows must revel in the reaction he receives when he sings “Killing Me Softly” and “Que Sera, Sera,” songs with lyrics written for female vocalists.
The Tahoe Onstage office telephone plays Congress’ cover of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” as callers wait for an answer. Recently, when the Wailers came to Tahoe, I received a call from bass player Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who was laughing loudly when I picked up the phone. “That is beautiful music, man,” the Family Man said in his thick Jamaican accent. The Wailers greatest early influence was the Impressions with Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler, something which Meadows is aware.
“Did you tell the Family Man I’m a white kid from Virginia?” Meadows asked, thrilled by the compliment.
“The Loft Tapes” where recorded almost two years ago when the Congress played “Soul Session Tuesdays” in a Colorado venue called Lola. Guitarist Scott Lane had recently acquired a Tascam 388 recording console.
“The best way to learn how to record was to get in there and do it,” Meadows said. “We figured we’ve got all these soul songs that we’ve just learned so we recorded what we had been playing at the time, and there you have ‘The Loft Tapes.’
“We’re just doing it on vinyl we are giving the finger to throwing plastic CDs away. So you can only get this record if you have a vinyl player or buy the digital download, and it has been moving pretty quick.”
Keyboardist Chris Speasmaker joined Meadows, Lane and drummer Mark Levy full time last summer, making the Congress a quartet. Speasmaker’s first gig, coincidentally, was when the band headlined a Live at Lakeview show in South Lake Tahoe.
“Tahoe is our home away from home,” Meadows said. “There is a huge Southern contingency that lives out there, so Tahoe isn’t much different for us from being in Colorado, but it’s just a lot prettier, in my opinion.”
The Congress recently played a national theater tour, opening for Lake Street Dive, which features singer Rachael Price. Meadows and Price sang a duet each night.
“We would end ever show with one of their songs then the encore, ‘Let Me Roll It,’ ” Meadows said. “I got a chance to sing with her every night. The reception was incredibly warm and welcoming.”
Meadows sang in a Baptist church when he was a child.
“My dad used to sing in the choir on Wednesday nights and I would go with him because my mom would be working,” Meadows said. “I would sit there and eventually I would get bored and start singing along.”
Meadows’ folks already knew their red-headed boy could sing.
“From about 2 years old, my parents told me I would be correcting them about singing a song,” Meadows said. “They played good music for me, man. I got hooked up. I heard the Beach Boys and I heard Motown as a baby, and I heard gospel music. I got a nice solid cushion to sing off of.”
He received a music scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University. But he left after two years to become a soul singer and rock star.
“I found out about the Grateful Dead and LSD and that was the end of it,” he said.