Liberated from a self-destructive past and born anew in sobriety, Neal Francis has captured an inspired collection of songs steeped in New Orleans rhythms, Chicago blues, and early 70s rock n’ roll. His music evokes a bygone era of R&B’s heyday while simultaneously forging a new path on the musical landscape. Ohio-based Karma Chief Records (a subsidiary of rising soul label Colemine Records) released a full LP Changes on September 20, 2019. There is a deep connection between Neal’s childhood, his obsession with boogie woogie piano, his father’s gift of a dusty Dr. John LP, and the songs he’s created. The result is an astonishing collection of material without parallel in the contemporary funk and soul scene. When you listen, you’ll hear AND feel it. While he pays tribute to the masters, he has his own story to tell. The piano prodigy found himself touring Europe by the age of 18 with Muddy Waters’ son and backing up other prominent blues artists coast-to-coast. In 2012, he joined popular instrumental funk band The Heard. With Francis at the creative helm, The Heard transformed into a national act, touring with boogaloo progenitors The New Mastersounds and chart toppers The Revivalists and appearing at Jazz Fest and Bear Creek. As The Heard’s star rose, however, Neal sunk deeper into addiction. Once a promising sideman, by 2015 he had been fired from his band, evicted from his apartment, and was perilously close to self-destruction. The journey from a hospital bed to launching his solo career was neither predictable nor straightforward. There were musical fits and starts, relapses, and broken relationships. Yet the overwhelming passion driving Neal in this second act has been an abundance of creative energy. Determined to realize the songs swirling in his head, he assembled a crack team of musicians, calling on bassist Mike Starr (The Heard) and drummer PJ Howard (The Revivalists, The Heard). He linked up with producer and analog-obsessive Sergio Rios (Orgone, Cee Lo Green, Alicia Keys) and self-funded a trip to Killion Sound in Los Angeles to record the initial batch of material. Neal finished recording basic tracks for Changes in Los Angeles in February of 2018 and spent the following months doing overdubs in Chicago with engineer Mike Novak (who also recorded demos for the project). Soon after he began his touring career.
I had a chance to re-connect with friend of the proGram Neal Francis ahead of the January 30th show at the High Noon Saloon along with those colorful groovemasters, Turkuaz. Neal and I talk about all that has been happening since last we spoke on the record. He has been touring heavy on the back of the Changes release, and it’s some of the artists he is pairing up with that shows his musics flexibility, relatability and the handshake it solidifies with gratitude. We get into a new track that’s out today, what the future looks like with other “new to you” music and fellow artists on the mighty Colemine Records. I am thinking you must be ready to get yourself a taste of some Midwest soul, so check out what Neal is up to in a area near you.