Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Burnt Sugar Play James Brown in Bed-Stuy

Most cover bands are either a disappointment or a joke. This being New York, there are actually some covers bands here who transcend the label: Tammy Faye Starlite’s brutally satirical Rolling Stones and Blondie projects; the sometimes 18-piece Main Squeeze Orchestra, who perform original all-accordion arrangements of pop songs; and Burnt Sugar. Of course, Burnt Sugar aren’t just a cover band: founder/conductor Greg Tate has been leading them through their trademark hypnotic, psychedelic, atmospheric, improvisational soundscapes since the 90s. But they’re also a mighty funk orchestra. Last night at Tompkins Park in Bed-Stuy, they played an all-James Brown program that did justice to the Godfather of Soul.

How do you cover Jaaaaaaaaaaaaames Brown without turning it into camp, or a parody? By doing the songs pretty much how he did them – and by not overdoing the vocals. A rotating cast of singers, both male and female, took turns on lead vocals (often in the same song), the main guy wearing a James Brown helmet wig. But as much fun as everybody was having, nobody went completely over the top: no cape trick, no Vegas showmanship, just a lot of good tunes and good history. The band was colossal, in both senses of the word: a five-piece horn section; five harmony singers (one of whom had to multitask on turntables, something they could have left in the rehearsal room and the music wouldn’t have suffered); three dancers, who mingled with the audience, as well as violin, keys, guitar, bass and drums. When bassist Jared Nickerson’s slinky Bootsy Collins lines were audible in the amphitheatre’s boomy sonics, it was clear that he was having the time of his life. The horns lept in joyously and disappeared in a split-second, just as Brown would have wanted, and the singers both in front and behind the band delivered the songs with a passion that wouldn’t let up. Just a few of the standouts from this particular lineup: violinist Mazz Swift, whose austere textures were a welcome anchor; Bruce Mack’s alternately funky and lush keys and organ, Paula Henderson (of Rev. Vince Anderson’s band) on baritone sax, and Imani Uzuri taking a couple of characteristically alluring cameos out in front when she wasn’t singing harmonies.

There was also a multimedia component that packed a surprising punch. A screen behind the band showed slides of various James Brown property (shades, stagewear, personal effects) auctioned off after his death, while an actor played the role of auctioneer between several of the songs or segues. The most powerful moments of the night were when Brown’s soul came up for auction, and later when the actor and the singer in the JB wig evoked the introduction of the famous Boston concert after the Martin Luther King assassination where Brown is commonly credited from saving the city from the rioting that was taking place all over the country; this particular interpretation had Brown ignoring the Boston mayor’s well-intentioned condescension with a casually stern but insightful exhortation to the crowd to chill out. Other segments played up Brown’s message of self-empowerment and defiant ambition.

And the songs were supertight: I Feel Good, Super Bad, a cheery singalong of Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud), a surprisingly upbeat It’s a Man’s World, a version of Please Please Please that played up its doo-wop origins, and a surprising amount of material from throughout his career, not just the classic hits from the 60s. Brown’s angel dust period was vividly evoked via a long, atonal instrumental – a good approximation of this band’s original stuff – backing a spoken-word piece about heroin delivered by the harmony singer/turntablist. The crowd, sparse as the sun went down, grew in numbers and enthusiasm as the night wore on, the band’s dancers getting a party going in front of the stage. They’ll be there tonight at 8 if you’re in the mood.

June 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lee Fields & the Expressions Bring Oldschool Soul to Williamsburg

The trendoid band who opened at the Williamsburg Waterfront Sunday afternoon were as pathetic as expected: uptight, fearful beats, inept guitar, vocals (you couldn’t call it singing) that sounded like a drawl learned from tv rather than in a part of the world where people actually speak with a drawl, and a girl on sax who made Poly Styrene sound like John Coltrane. But wait – this was indie rock. Indie rock isn’t supposed to be good, in fact it’s not even meant to be listened to at all. It’s something you’re supposed to know and take blurry iphone photos of when you see it so you can prove you’re as much of a conformist as the next bedheaded boy. Still, it’s sad that a band like the Highway Gimps were limited to tearing up the back room at Tommy’s Tavern the previous night when they or plenty of other good Brooklyn bands could have torn up a much bigger stage on Sunday, giving Lee Fields a real run for his money.

Fields is a rediscovery, one of the more recent, obscure black performers resurrected by white kids who’ve discovered the magic of oldschool soul music. He started out in the late 60s, reputedly doing a pretty solid James Brown imitation, expanding into other styles as the years went on. He never put out an album til 1979, recording sporadically in the years that followed while plying his trade up and down the eastern seaboard and in the south. Fields’ output is actually more diverse, and has changed with the times, more than was evident during his roughly fifty-minute set. This was the 60s show, and he and the absolutely killer band behind him excelled at it. They all looked sharp – the drummer even wore a tie, and didn’t take it off despite the humidity – and played as if it was Memphis, 1968, the pint-sized Fields resplendent in a white suit that probably dates from that era: stagewear is expensive, you know. The bass played sinuously melodic, fluid grooves while the guitar channeled Steve Cropper at times, augmented by a terrific, understated latin percussionist and an organist who also kept it simple and in the pocket. A lot of the faces up there looked familiar: an Antibalas ringer or two, maybe?

The set mixed long, hypnotic, JB-style one-chord funk grooves with a handful of disarmingly pretty ballads lit up with vividly incisive, jangly guitar. The band opened with a couple of tasty midtempo grooves, then brought up Fields, whose voice has taken on more of a gravelly tinge, but he still worked the crowd as if he was on his home turf – and seemed genuinely grateful for the support from an unusually diverse audience (at least in conservative, whitewashed Bloomberg-era Williamsburg). They did the bitterly defiant kiss-off anthem Gone for Good, a dead ringer for the Godfather of Soul in his classic 60s period, early on. Money Is King, a long vamp that slowly slunk along to a quick couple of chord changes on the turnaround, came across as unselfconsciously hungry and probably resonated with crowds in the 60s and 70s as much as Fitty does these days. On Ladies, an even more simple, direct groove, Fields tried engaging some of the girls in the front row, but they didn’t respond. Quickly, he made a joke out of it, reminding them how lucky their guys must be. The end of the set featured more of the slower and midtempo material, including the evocatively retro My World, the title track to his new album, which wouldn’t have been out of place in the late 60s Smokey Robinson catalog. Fields doesn’t break any new ground and doesn’t really have a signature style of his own, but he knows his history and he should because he was there – and the band sounded like they were too.

August 18, 2010 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment