Crack of Dawn experienced a great deal of success in the mid to late 1970’s as the first black R&B act signed to a major label, Columbia Records, but their success dissipated and the band fell silent by the early 1980’s. Their return as a nine piece, complete with horn section, reaches its zenith thus far with the release of Spotlight, a ten song collection highlighting the band’s extraordinary skill with both classic R&B and funk. It’s never a cliché riddled vision of those forms or anything remotely imitative, but rather signature and distinctive with the way the band owns the basic fundamentals yet has the skill to do something uniquely their own. Much of the album’s musical success is built around the muscular rhythm section of bassist Charles Sinclair and drummer Carl Otway, but there’s chops galore in this outfit. Skill is never an impediment to feeling, however, and this collection of songs practically bleeds with emotion.
Even the more rambunctious numbers like opener “Crack of Dawn” brim over with passion thanks to vocalist Michael Dunston. There’s a sound on Spotlight that helps these songs sound like they are cut live in the studio or with an absolute minimum of overdubs, and Dunston’s committed singing seems to inspire the musicians to even greater heights. This song gets the album off to a strong start and Crack of Dawn continues to raise the bar with the following songs. “Somebody’s Watching” and “Booby Ruby” are sonically similar, naturally, but cut from a different stylistic cloth as the band stretches out into funk with potent results. This is where the aforementioned rhythm section really shines as it invites their individual and collective creativity to emerge even fuller flower than before and they attack these songs with just the right amount of urgency and restraint.
“Keep the Faith” has a good arrangement and uses vocals, both lead and backing, to a greater effect than we’ve heard with the earlier songs. It has a slight gospel influence rising to the surface that plays well with the band’s obvious penchant for R&B, but it has a little of their added funk spice as well to spike the track for listeners. It has one of the best “messages” for listeners on the album and Dunston intensely puts across its point of view. “It’s Alright” adopts a more overtly retro sound than most songs on Spotlight thanks to the inclusion of organ in the track, but it isn’t a dominating element in the number as a whole. The song has one of the album’s best vocal arrangements as well. “Your Love” is much more standard fare, reminiscent of many such songs longtime listeners of the form have heard, but it’s also a strong candidate for a single and would serve as an excellent introduction to the band in some respects. Crack of Dawn ends their first album in multiple decades with the song “Changes” and you can scarcely argue for a better ending. The song, likewise, has the band pointing to the future with palpable verve as they opt to close Spotlight on an exuberant note.