4 to Watch: Ryan Shaw

Souled out for a classic vibe

Music Features Ryan Shaw
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Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Fun fact: When not making music, Shaw enjoys photography, painting and roller-skating. “Not in-line, but four-wheels,” he says, “old school.”
Why he’s worth watching: Last fall’s tour with Robert Randolph and the Family Band was such a success that the steel-guitar virtuoso and his cohorts invited Shaw to tour with them again this spring.
For fans of: Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Al Green

Like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin before him, Ryan Shaw transitioned easily from the gospel-choir loft to the secular stage of soul music. Singing in Georgia churches since he was three, Shaw moved to Brooklyn in 1998 in search of a Broadway career. When that didn’t materialize, he began singing with a doo-wop group called the Soul Shakers, and realized the music didn’t stray very far from what he had been singing all his life. “To me, this came straight out of the church, and I connected with it,” he says. “It’s the same feeling of love. It’s like church music with different words.”

Shaw drew on his choir-director background when he began playing solo sets. “I like to engage the audience,” he says. “A lot of my music is really danceable, so I like to get the audience to dance and meet people.” Shaw’s recent performance on the WXPN-produced, NPR-syndicated World Café illustrates his interactive approach: “Now I see we got a little bit of dance room in here,” he says after the first song, “so if you feel like dancing and jumping around, feel free to get up.” The band immediately launches into the danceable “Do the Jerk” from Shaw’s upcoming debut.

The album, This is Ryan Shaw, is an energetic throwback to the classic soul music of the ’50s and ’60s. Shaw sounds like he bases his approach not on new trends, but on past innovators like Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett, and he brings a voice strong enough to hold its own alongside that period’s legends. The album’s songs, other than three original tunes, were all written between three to six decades ago. “We Got Love,” one of the originals, is Shaw’s favorite song on the record. “I think it kind of sums up everything I am,” he says. “I think when you leave a Ryan Shaw show, that’s the feeling I want you to leave with.”