Jo Gore was going over the pre-show details of her peformance at the Durham Performing Arts Center with the folks who run the auditorium, and at one point they asked her, “What dressing room do you want?”
This was not a question Gore had ever before had to consider.
“I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” she said. “And they go, ‘And what do you want in it?’”
Gore, a Durham singer and songwriter, has performed in a lot of venues, but never one where she was offered her choice of dressing rooms, much less special requests.
Until tonight. Gore and her accompanist, guitarist Bo Lankenau, will open for the soul and gospel giant Al Green at DPAC.
It will be the biggest stage yet for an artist who got her start singing in her family church in rural Columbus County and has since performed in clubs, cafes and festivals throughout the state.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” Gore said. “I’m staying busy, concentrating on the work, making sure the music is as good as we can make it.
“It’s a big opportunity. And I’ll be ready. The music is the most important thing.”
The DPAC show isn’t Gore’s only big one this week. The following night, Thursday, she will play at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro to celebrate the release of their new album, “The Herstory of Josephine Gore: Return of the Articulate Kinsman Vol. 1,” a three-dic set that includes a studio album, a live album and a DVD.
“There’s a lot of me in it,” she said. “We do a lot of soul, jazz, blues and gospel. Both my grandparents were ministers, and I sample parts of their sermons on a few of the tracks.”
Gore spent much of her childhood singing spirituals at Spring Hill Baptist Church, where her grandparents preached and her father played piano, in rural Whiteville, about 50 miles west of Wilmington.
“I pretty much grew up in church, and I’ve been singing ever since I could walk and talk,” she said. “I don’t ever remember not doing it. But I never thought about doing it as a career until I came up here.”
That happened when she enrolled at UNC. Moving from the conservative community of her roots to wide-open Chapel Hill was a leap, but she kept singing through it all.
“One day I was just hanging around campus singing and this man came up and said, ‘You should check out this place in Durham, the Know Bookstore, where they have these open music jams,’” she said. “So I did, and the owner said, ‘I’ll pay you to come back here and sing.’ And then I was at Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse one night, and Bobby Hinton was playing, and he said, ‘I’ll pay you to sing with my group.’ That’s when it occurred to me that maybe I could do this for a living.”
She devoted herself to the music and started booking gigs all over the Triangle. Lankenau also was making the rounds of the area jazz and blues clubs, and it was probably inevitable that their paths should cross. When they did, the two recognized kindred spirits in each other.
“Jo is one of the best vocalists I’ve ever heard anywhere, any time, any place,” Lankenau said. “She doesn’t just sing these songs, she really understands them. She has studied the great jazz vocalists and learned from them, but at the same time she gives everything her own twist. She never sings a piece the same way twice. She has that sponteneous creative aspect that I never get tired of.”
Gore takes much of her inspiration from the classic soul, jazz and blues singers like Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan, but she covers a lot of ground stylistically.
She and Lankenau perform as the Jo Gore Duo, and they also form the nucleus of her bigger band, The Alternative, along with musicians Chip Newton, Kip Perry, Weldon Kollock and Bakru Hunsel.
At DPAC tonight, it’ll be the duo, setting the stage for one of the greatest of soul singers.
“I’m sure my knees will be knocking a little bit,” Lankenau said. “But we’ve worked hard for this, so we’re going to take advantage of the opportunity. It’ll be nice for our resume; people notice when you’ve played on the same stage as Al Green. But we have to try to approach it as just another gig. All we can do is get up there and do the best we can do.”
“Al Green is about as big as it gets,” Gore said. “Sometimes opportunities present themselves, and you have to be ready to go to work when they do. I called Al Green’s people, and I called the DPAC people, and I called everybody in between, and eventually we made the connection. If you keep plugging away, at some point things all come together.”