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Neo-soul revival 

Upscale Underground aims to fill a niche

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Traveling to bigger metropolitan areas inevitably provokes “If only Little Rock had _____” discussions. 

Usually, those wants and wishes die at the end of the conversation. Not so for Jason Marshall, 24, and Jennifer Jackson, 32. After the pair traveled to Dallas to see smooth soul man Muziq Soulchild, they wondered why more neo-soul acts weren't coming to Little Rock. Some research, a few calls and connections made here and there and the two had formed Upscale Underground, a booking and promotional company focused on showcasing national talent that, they believe, hasn't gotten appropriate shine.

Upscale means classy, laidback — an event removed from the beefs, aggression and misogyny of the clubs. Underground, like in most musical contexts, suggests artists who fly under the mainstream radar.

Upscale Underground's debut of its “Soul'd Out” concert series barely fit that qualification. Dwele, a neo-soul artist from Detroit, came to Juanita's in October, just months before his guest appearance on Kanye West's song “Flashing Lights” earned the pair a Grammy nomination. The company has also featured jazz/soul artist Frank McComb and blues/soul crooner Keite Young. So far all performances have been held at Juanita's.

Aside from filling a niche, the motivation behind Upscale Underground is simple, if almost quaint in today's music industry: Marshall and Jackson genuinely love neo-soul music. Their early success is a testament to that. For Dwele, Marshall says they “showed him some of that Southern hospitality” and fed him and his band a big home-cooked Southern meal. The stomach is the quickest route to the heart: Dwele returned in January just to host an event and Marshall says he'll be back again soon, too.

On Friday, Upscale Underground presents Eric Roberson, a smooth soul crooner from New Jersey whom the Washington Post called “the hip-hop generation's heir to Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson.” Over a 13-year career that's seen him record both for a major label and independently, work with DJ Jazzy Jeff's production crew and write songs for the likes of Jill Scott and 112, Roberson's released five albums. His most recent, “… Left,” earned him a BET Award nomination. Marshall warns folks to “bring their dancing shoes.” Local act Delya Chandler and Smooth September opens.

So far, for Marshall, who works for Alltel and dabbles, impressively, in hip-hop production, and Jackson, who owns and operates Soul Serenity Salon and Spa, Upscale Underground is a part-time gig. The advances paid to artists and other costs associated with events come from their pockets, though they're actively pursuing sponsorship.

To augment what's so far been an almost monthly major concert offering, Upscale Underground also hosts weekly parties on Thursdays at Crush Wine Bar. Often, the parties serve as listening sessions for just-released albums by artists in the pantheon, like Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. Occasionally, local acts like Rodney Block and the Real Music Lovers or Delya Chandler and Smooth September perform.

On the horizon for Upscale Underground: smooth soul diva Conya Doss on May 10, and in September, to celebrate the company's one year anniversary, a one-day festival in Riverfest Amphitheatre with bigger-name national acts. As Upscale Underground continues to establish connections, Marshall predicts that Little Rock will become a must-stop spot for all neo-soul artists.

Tickets for Friday's concert run from $15 (for advance “early bird” tickets) to $20 in advance to $40 for an “Upscale Upgrade,” which includes a reserved seat and chicken and queso or quesadillas and queso. Tickets are available via juanitas.com or by calling 838-3163.

Marshall and Jackson stress that because half of an artist's guarantee must be paid before he comes to town and the other paid before he hits the stage, it's essential to Upscale Underground's continued ability to bring name talent to town that people buy advance tickets.


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