In the summer of 2008, RAGBRAI came through Ames and the influx of bicyclists was not only a boost for the local economy; it gave a boost to Ames music as well. In addition to all the bars hosting live music for the evening, there was an explosion of street performances. All through the afternoon and evening, impromptu musical performances around took place around Campustown. Buskers lined Welch and perched at street corners collecting tips. Small groups of people jammed in front lawns. In the T-Galaxy parking lot, a drum circle’s improvised performance drew an enormous crowd that spilled out into the street.
I was busking on Welch that evening, taking my acoustic guitar from one jam to the next, running into other musicians and friends everywhere I turned. I walked up Welch to a large house where my friend Virginia was in the midst of a fire dance performance. As I watched the fire dancing and strummed on my guitar, a woman walked right up to me and asked me if she could play a song. I handed her the instrument and then listened, amazed, while she belted out her soul songs.
The woman was the local singer-songwriter Sharika Soal and meeting her was a fateful moment in both of our lives. After that initial jam, we started playing more music together and I joined her newly formed band Ladysoal, which was the first rock band I’d ever played in. The band has come a long way since I last played in it and now they have released their first full-length album.
The album, like their live show, has great dynamic range. From chill R&B jams like the soulful “Sunshine (acoustic)” to a rowdy blues rock song like “That Girl” (my personal favorite on the record), Ladysoal is master of many moods.
No one in Ames sings quite like Sharika. She brings a raw, no-holds barred, full-throated vocal power that is uncompromising. She also has the soul singer’s instinct for finding blue notes and playing with the melodies, as on “Low” and “Insecure”. Sharika’s presence during live shows emphasizes the fierceness of her voice and her persona.
And then there’s the band. The drummer James Doxon (who is also my close friend and musical collaborator) and the bassist Mallory Crain lay down a tight groove that really propels the songs. There’s a reason Sharika dances so hard during Ladysoal shows: her band makes an irresistible beat.
The ensemble is filled out by Mike Meier, whose guitar licks brilliantly echo the heartache in the vocals and whose solid blues riffs provide the band with a crunchy rock sound. Mike’s playing really reverberates with Sharika’s style; she calls him “the twinkle.”
One of the album’s fiercest and catchiest songs, “Mommy,” is also the most heart-rending in subject matter. The lyrics tell a story of tragic neglect, but the intense power that Ladysoal brings to the song’s performance tells a larger story: not only does the band have the audacity to make a song about such a sensitive subject, they have the strength to make that song rock. And that ability transforms “Mommy” from a lament into a triumph.
Sharika is a mother herself now and the album is dedicated to her son, Jacob. He was also the inspiration for the song “Sunshine.” Ladysoal released the video for that song Thursday night at Project 20/20 in Campustown.
Ladysoal has come a long way since that summer night when Sharika first played me her songs. Our music has been on parallel paths for these past few years and I’m excited for the future of our collaboration in Ames, a town where small musical connections grow into lasting friendships and mutual respect.