On Wednesday night, the Lowdown Hudson Blues Festival kicked off its annual season with a night of roots music from the No BS! Brass Band, Lake Street Dive, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

The No BS! Brass Band, which opened the evening, are a Virginia-based instrumental group that incorporate occasional rapping into their big-band jazz sound. They covered Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson in their crowd-pleasing opening set. There was plenty of chanting and cheering and jumping and clapping, which at times made the band’s set (particularly during their hometown-championing “RVA All Day”) feel like they were warming up the crowd at a sporting event.

The second act of the night was Lake Street Dive, a Boston quartet that is currently touring behind their highly-touted debut release, Bad Self Portraits. The group–led by frontwoman Rachel Price–whose smooth, silky vocals provide the backdrop for the group’s blend of jazzy girl-group pop and rootsy r&b, with hints of country and soul seeping through most of their well-crafted compositions.

Lake Street Dive’s take on roots music is polished, pleasing and professional, if unchallenging. Price sings lead on most of the material, but the group benefits from its collaborative spirit, with each band member contributing to the songwriting. The band played highlights from its sole LP, as well as a few promising new, unreleased songs. They sang about night classes, Tanqueray and getting wasted in their childhood basements. For the second time that evening, Michael Jackson provided source material for the group’s tepid take on the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.”

Guitarist Mike Olson provided the night’s first, and only, mention of the off-putting setting of the Blues Festival, whose stage was sandwiched between yachts in the marina on one side, and a private, VIP party with food and drinks on the other. “This one goes out to all the people watching us from their yachts,” Olson said before “Seventeen.” It could have been an opportunity for some pointed commentary on a festival with a questionable setting, but from Lake Street Dive it sounded like an aside.

The last act of the night was the headlining set from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, a homecoming set for the Brooklyn-based group who had just returned from a European tour.

Sharon Jones is part revivalist preacher, part showbiz-savvy front woman, part dance coordinator, part standup comic, part motivational speaker. Her band–the Dap Kings–can tackle boogie, funk, soul, r&b, big band jazz and pop, and even played a few numbers (with several featuring the backup singers The Dapettes) before Jones took the stage.

Jones’ career spanning set featured songs from the group’s fifth studio album, Give the People What They Want. She sang of isolation and struggle in songs like “Stranger to My Happiness” and “Calamity,” and of redemption in “If You Call” and “Making Up And Breaking Up.” For Jones, forgiving a flawed past lover isn’t a sign of weakness, but a willingness to accept love. She sings of pain, loneliness, desire, and placing her own weaknesses front and center. “Doctor, doctor, cut my heart out, cause it hardly beats at all,” she sang on stage Wednesday evening. “But please leave a little portion, in case my baby calls.

Jones treats the stage as her living room, bringing a man onstage to dance with Jones during “Long Time, Wrong Time,” Jones turned the song into a meditation on sex: sex as healing, sex as celebration, sex as rebirth, sex as recovery. On the very next song, she invited a half dozen guests to help her dance as the Dap Kings took on Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” With the Dap Kings, Sharon Jones doesn’t have many stand-out singles or hits. Her shows focus less on the songs themselves and more what she does with them and to them, how she creates and reinvents within the spaces the Dap Kings give for her to work in.

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Jones is also a old-fashioned showbizz professional, giving lengthy band introductions and offering dramatic between-song banter. At one point she led the crowd through a litany of ’60s dance crazes (The Mashed-Potato, The Jerk,The Funky Chicken) despite only having been a very young girl when most of the dances were around. Which is to say that it’s easy to lose sight of Jones’ greatest, unadulterated talent: her singing. She proved her vocal chops time and time again as both a gospel shouter and an R&B balladeer. On “Slow Down, Love” Jones crooned and moaned her way through one the band’s only down-tempo numbers of the night. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Jones Instagram) 

Sharon Jones’ overcoming cancer narrative was feeded to the audience even before the took the stage, with the evening’s emcee introducing the singer as a cancer-beating “soul survivor,” and the Dap Kings bandleader announcing Jones’ arrival on stage by declaring “she just beat cancer in the ass.”

But Jones herself embraced her own tale of survival, turning a story that runs the risk of cheap sentimentality into a moving narrative of persistence, grace and determination. “A year ago I was in the hospital, tubes down my throat. I’m so glad to be alive,” she shouted from stage towards the end of her set. Instead of letting herself became a pawn to her cancer narrative, Jones took control of the story herself. She was jubilant, grateful, and thankful to be sharing her love and faith with anyone willing to listen. “Night after night I have to tell that story,” she told the crowd, in a brief moment of self-consciousness and hesitation towards her own narrative, before arriving at the evening’s punch line: “But I’m glad I get to tell it to somebody.”