A Bay Area band stirred the souls of a hundred San Quentin prisoners with a high-energy Sunday night concert on Aug. 25.
Fliers posted in the cell blocks promised “A Night of Classic Soul.” The Soulbillies delivered with a whirlwind performance that spurred the audience to dance, sing, laugh and clap for two hours of not-so-pure enjoyment.
The five musicians, dressed in all black, took the stage in the prison chapel and began with a couple of cover grooves, including Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” Lead singer Shelley Flint belted out the lyrics as drummer Dan Babior and keyboardist Melinda Borello backed her up with the “Chain-chain-chain…” The energy had the audience nodding their heads and tapping their feet.
The five friends, who worked together at a nearby high school, formed Soulbillies in 2015. “We’re from just up the road a bit. We’re teachers. That’s what we do,” said bassist Ian Sethre. Sethre is also an instructor in the Prison University Program at San Quentin. On this night he brought in the whole band for their prison debut. “We do covers and some original stuff. Some are not appropriate for church—for example this next song. …”
Soulbillies broke into their original mambo “Another Lost Soul,” getting the audience swaying again.
“How many of you have had Ian as a teacher?” asked Flint, as several hands went up. “Now you get to hear him sing.”
“I don’t think that’s why they came, but it’s going to happen anyway,” replied Sethre as he flipped his silver-and-black hair back and took the microphone for another Soulbillies original, “Almost Rock Bottom.” The country sound had the crowd bobbing, clapping, and singing along. Every face in the chapel was smiling, from the stage to the last pew.
Soulbillies shifted next to rocking out with “Hard to Handle.” Flint was back on lead vocals. “Baby, here I am, I’m the girl on the scene / Come on baby, let me light your candle / ’cause I’m sure hard to handle now…” Her silver-blonde hair bounced as she danced, and Mike Sloan tore into a solo on his bright red electric guitar. Borello followed with a solo on the keys, her long, dark-brown ponytail swinging down to the bench. Applause roared through the chapel.
The next song slowed the tempo down a bit with, “You tell me that you love me / It’s a good thing you don’t hate me…”
“If you haven’t figured it out yet, most of our songs are about relationships gone wrong—they’re a lot more fun than the other kind,” said bassist Sethre. Soulbillies then took the crowd on a four-song journey, beginning with a cover of “Midnight Rider.” The chapel swayed to the grooves. Then Flint pulled back her hair and straightened her blouse.
The band ripped hard into “Tell Mama,” their biggest hit of the night. The audience yelled and cheered to Flint’s “Mama’ll make everything all right…” while she and Sethre danced to the hard-driving rhythm. The energy in the room crackled and the San Quentin crowd burst into thunderous applause.
A couple songs later, Babior sang the lead on a rendition of a Joe Cocker hit that had the crowd dancing, clapping and “Feelin’ All Right.”
“How much time do we have left?” Sethre asked the crowd. “We got life!” one concert goer yelled back. The band and inmates laughed out loud. “Let me rephrase that,” interjected the bassist. “What time is it?” Time for a dozen more songs, it turned out.
One of the crowd favorites was “Voodoo Woman,” which featured soulful vocals, an energetic drum solo and a groovy guitar solo by Sloan—all to uproarious applause.
The debut of the Soulbillies original duet “Damned If I Do,” co-written by Flint and Sethre, kept the audience fired up. Then musician Jeffrey At- kins jumped up from the audience on to the stage with the band, introduced as “The sixth member of The Jackson Five.” He and Flint danced and sang to the band’s lively rendition of “I Want You Back.”
The groove culminated with two soul-satisfying encores that sparked standing ovations.
“That was awesome—really good energy!” said one concertgoer named Robert. “She knocked that Aretha Franklin out of the park!” commented another.
The inmates, in their prison- issued blue pants and shirts, approached the Soulbillies on stage to meet and mingle. “I had a great time,” said drummer and vocalist Dan Babior. “When the crowd enjoys us so much, then we enjoy it even more.” He said they play at area bars and events in Marin, Sonoma and San Francisco regularly.
“We’ve never played in a church before,” said keyboard- ist Melinda Borello. “We’ve never played for a crowd so in- teractive with us. That was re- ally awesome!”
Lead singer Shelley Flint responded to a fan asking what inspires her to sing: “This may sound funny coming from a white girl. As a young girl, I used to sing the theme from The Jeffersons, ‘Movin’ On Up,’ into my hairbrush. Later, I started singing Janice Joplin.” Flint continued, “Now, I enjoy singing as an opportunity to release ‘the beast within’ and express myself.”
Soulbillies will perform at Hotel Utah in San Francisco on October 19. Some of their recorded music is available at Soulbillies.com.
The soul-fulfilling concert was coordinated by Bread & Roses, a nonprofit, volunteer- based organization that brings “Hope and Healing Through Live Music” into San Quentin and other Bay Area institutions. “I just love bringing music in and seeing all the smiles,” said organizer Lisa Starbird after the concert.