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Originally published August 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 6, 2008 at 11:41 AM

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Grooving, "northern soul" style at the Emerald City Soul Club

The Emerald City Soul Club brings its soul vibe to Seattle's Lo-Fi Performance Gallery with rare soul dance music called northern soul; the next Soul Club night is Aug. 9, 2008.

Special to The Seattle Times

What's northern soul?

Soul Club DJ Gene Balk: "It's a tough thing to define. Nothing that we play was actually created as northern soul, it's sort of an after-the-fact thing. It's whatever gets picked up on the scene and is played and people like and wanna dance to. It changes. It's been going on for 35 years or so. It started out as small label stuff from Detroit and Chicago and it was big label stuff, too — R&B modern stuff through the '70s and '80s. It's all northern soul."

Soul Club DJ Kevin Jones: "There is a specific reason why it's called northern soul. During the '70s in the U.K., when the mod scene sort of tapered off from the '60s, in London those kids started listening to psych music and stuff like that. People in the north of England kept looking to the same '60s soul stuff. Eventually there was a magazine called Blues & Soul. One of the writers deemed the type of stuff they were dancing to in the north of England 'northern soul.' But it was always American music."

Jonathan Zwickel

Club preview

Emerald City Soul Club

9 p.m. Saturday, Lo-Fi Performance Gallery, 429 Eastlake Ave. E., Seattle; $7

(206-254-2824, www.myspace.com/emeraldcitysoulclub or www.myspace.com/percussions).

It's just before midnight on an isolated stretch of Eastlake Avenue, and young people are gaggled together around the featureless doorway of the Lo-Fi Performance Gallery. Chattering and smoking, they're a pocket of vitality in this otherwise dark, I-5-abutted neighborhood. Some of the women are dressed in satiny cocktail dresses and fishnets, some of the men in vests, ties and porkpie hats. It's the second Saturday of the month and a few hundred revelers are here for Emerald City Soul Club.

Beyond a protracted wait in line is the scruffy interior of one of Seattle's last unrefined, uncommercial nightclubs. To the right, drinkers hunch around a small bar and lounge on thrift-store sofas. To the left, a long hallway is dimly lit by red sconces that lead to a backroom packed with sweat-soaked dancers. Here a DJ plays 7-inch vinyl singles, old soul and R&B numbers that seem familiar in their grit and grind but are not. A few couples swing or lindy hop like pros, the other hundred or so shimmy solo or with friends. Everyone slyly eyes themselves in the room's wall-sized mirror. The hardwood dance floor is lubricated with baby powder and every step is a cool glide. Framed by a far window, the Space Needle points its white metal finger skyward.

The Lo-Fi hosts jazz, electronic and hip-hop music nights, but since Soul Club's inception almost three years ago, it has come to define the vibe of the place and become immensely popular over the past year. The reason is the music: "northern soul," which sounds like classic '60s Motown but is played by bands of the same era you've never heard of. It's dance music from decades ago that — like magic — still incites unabashed hip shaking and stutter-stepping in any human with a pulse.

Soul Club is the bouncing baby of seven Seattle DJs. Some, like Marc Muller, have been spinning records for years but only recently dove into the untapped world of northern soul. Others, like Mike Nipper and Gene Balk (who works as a news researcher at The Seattle Times), are so long and deep into the sound that they've amassed thousands of those 7-inch singles, aka 45s.

Kevin Jones travels to cities across the U.S. in search of them; as a rule, the music was recorded on the cheap, packaged on 45s, and lacked nationwide distribution. Some rare 45s go for upward of $1,000. All of the Soul Club DJs obsess over northern soul records with the passion of religious zealots. Soul Club is their pulpit for preaching the word.

"That's part of the charm — this brilliant record has been sitting here unheard for 40 years, and I get to play it for 300 people tonight," Nipper said. "It's never gonna be on the radio, never ever gonna be anywhere else but here."

Muller put it this way: "What's great about the music we play is that it has a melody, it has lyrics that mean something, it's very emotional. It's not just a beat. You can really connect with it in a way that you can't with a lot of contemporary music."

"It's not like people stand there and look around," Nipper said. "There are people that hang out, but people are there to dance."

"To songs that they don't know!" Jones added.

While Seattle Police Department officers patrol nightclubs in Belltown, Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill, Lo-Fi stays off the radar because of its location.

"You don't wanna try to park at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night on Capitol Hill — too many hipsters, too much pretense," said Lo-Fi owner Scott Behrens. "I know a lot of the crowd wouldn't go up there. Here you can be outside and there's no complaints about people talking or smoking. That's the beauty of Lo-Fi — we don't have any neighbors."

Outside the club, the crowd was unanimous. "It's the best night in Seattle," said 27-year-old Matt Bowen. "It's the place people will let the pretense down. People want real music. They hear this soul stuff and they wanna dance."

Twenty-three-year-old Ballard resident Joe Manley echoed the sentiment: "This town takes itself too seriously," he said. "This is just good energy, good vibes. You don't even have to have anyone to dance with, you can just go for it and meet someone on the dance floor."

Jonatan Zwickel: zwickelicious@gmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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