Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Concert Review: Spanglish Fly and Sonia’s Party and the Everyone’s Invited Band at R Bar, NYC 3/31/10

The only bad thing about this party was that it couldn’t go all night. Both Sonia’s Party and the Everyone’s Invited Band and New York’s only current bugalu dance band, Spanglish Fly, came across as the kind of acts who do best when they have the whole evening, when they can ride the grooves for all they’re worth, taking the energy as high as it can go. But their show Wednesday night on lower Bowery was still a good one, even if it was a little tantalizing, each band getting a tad short of an hour onstage. It was almost as if just as when the party started to really cook, somebody raided the fridge and stole all the forties. Spanglish Fly did a song about something similar to that: getting busted by lazy NYPD cops who make their monthly quota of arrests with the least possible effort or imagination. “Open container!” the band chanted sarcastically; “Put out that J!” frontwoman Erica Ramos warned her baritone sax player.

With piano, congas, bongos, timbales, bass and a blazing horn section, Spanglish Fly are bringing back the bugalu beat, equal parts salsa and soul, that was everywhere in New York thirty-five years ago, and putting their own spin on it. Because this is dance music, they really get the percussion going, their bongo player getting a serious workout this time around, especially on their opening number, an inspired version of the Ray Barreto classic New York Soul, available on their excellent new cd. Ramos took advantage of the next number’s vamp to introduce the instruments Sly Stone style, trumpet and trombone delivering sizzling solos. They brought Sonia from Sonia’s Party up for a duet on I Heard It Through the Grapevine (a typical bugalu move, latinizing a 60s pop song), Ramos’ sultry alto contrasting with her counterpart’s brassy, sassy wail. Their last song, Pensamiento, took it to the next level, a fiery minor-key hook winding up the chorus, evoking a Spanish Harlem of the mind around 1965 where you’d be able to see a teenage Willie Colon lurking around the back of the club, doing some politics, strategizing a career – and El Canario might have stopped in too.

Sonia’s Party put their own imaginative, danceable spin on catchy 60s soul and Motown. Their frontwoman is a big belter. She’s got all the gospel vocal moves going on, but not in a showoff, American Idol way – what she does just seems natural. The band is killer: fat rhythm section, a terse guitarist who knows his vintage Stax/Volt, a smart and frequently haunting Rhodes pianist and three-piece horn section. They opened with an instrumental featuring a nice growling guitar solo, then brought Sonia up. A lot of her songs start with a long, passionate vocal intro and then warp into a bouncy three-minute soul-pop number. The cautionary dancefloor tale Bad Man was full of tense, unexpected major/minor shifts in the tune; the one before that, maybe titled Can’t Tear My Heart from You could have been a Memphis hit around 1967. But as retro as the tunes are, their sound is uniquely their own. They brought up Erica Ramos and a guy named Jermaine to take turns on the vocals on an actually inspired version of the Ike and Tina arrangement of Proud Mary. A little later, they did a jazzy one where after Sonia had sung her heart out, they brought up a rapper who gave a rapidfire account of his side of a love affair gone wrong. They closed with an obvious crowd-pleaser, a hip-hop duet about checking out people on the subway set to an early 70s-style funk tune. They probably would have gone twice as long if they’d had the chance – and it would have been nice to have been able to stick around for the next band, but it was time to go check out people on the subway before it turned into a pumpkin. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Transit Authority realized that some people have to get home before 4 AM? And in case you were wondering, these multiethnic bands drew a beautifully multiethnic, quintessentially New York crowd – there wasn’t a single bedhead or lumberjack beard in sight.

April 2, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Dina Dean – 4 Songs

Her auspicious but all-too-brief debut. Always leave them wanting more, the saying goes and it’s never been more true here. Dina Dean is a lefthanded guitarist and in that tradition, she uses a lot of interesting, uniquely incisive licks and chordlets. She’s also a hell of a lyricist, a terrific storyteller with a fondness for weirdos and the down-and-out. And a hell of a singer with an alto delivery capable of minute yet very powerful subtleties. When she gets loud, which isn’t often, you know something’s up. These songs are all midtempo rock but draw deeply on classic 60s soul with a tinge of country here and there.

The album begins with Radio Song, a vivid late-night portrait of a neighborhood character who hangs out in the park with her radio amidst a whole lot of chaos

She’s counting down the top 10 from ‘65
When she should be counting sheep
Warming up some cold coffee
As she wonders why –
She can’t fall asleep

And then the chorus kicks in, driven by echoey Fender Rhodes piano, spiced with guitar and harmonica. The next track, Same Grace is a gospel-inflected tribute to street musicians everywhere:

Rivers rolling down your face
With an accent I could hardly trace
Singing about that Same Grace
That’s kept you here

Some of Them Days, with its swinging beat and soaring steel guitar has a warm, evocative summery feel. The cd’s final track Down in the Dust is a richly imagistic chronicle of an ancient dancer from the 1930s looking back on her trials and travails:

The queen madame of the minstrel
In my own travelin’ show
In the days of Silent Cal
And that no count Jim Crow
I was living high on the hog
In my ruby studded shoes
And went back to a hollow log
When jazz blew the fuse on the blues

Four songs, five bagels. Toasted with butter at some all-night joint. This cd is available for a ridiculously low price at shows.

June 5, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments