Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The City Champs Set Up a Vintage Classic

If the City Champs’ new album The Set Up had been recorded in 1965, it would be hailed today as a great rediscovery. This Memphis instrumental band is absolutely period-perfect, right down to Joe Restivo’s vintage guitar tone, the subtly shifting waves of Al Gamble’s Hammond organ and George Sluppick’s funky, shuffling drums. Yet they don’t sound like imitators: they come across like any other good, imaginative, versatile southern soul organ-and-guitar combo from that era and locale. Their previous album The Safecracker was more of a collection of vintage dance grooves; this is an album of nocturnes. Considering the setup of the band (couldn’t resist the pun), much of this sounds a lot like Booker T. & the MGs. The more dramatic, cinematic tracks bring to mind Quincy Jones’ soundtrack to In the Heat of the Night.

The title track opens – it’s a theme that sets the tone for the rest of the album, perfectly evoked by the vintage typography and red-tinged chain-link fence on the cd cover. The second cut, Drippy is the most obviously Booker T-influenced cut with Restivo’s restless, staccato riffage building up to a big crescendo – and then they start over. Ricky’s Rant is arguably the best cut here, a beautifully murky, memorable theme. It’s basically a surf song gone funk, like a Booker T cover of a Lee Hazelwood song. The cinematic Crump St. begins as a slow, dusky summer soul groove lit up by Jim Spake’s tenor sax and then jumps to a jittery shuffle, Sluppick switching up the rhythm artfully. Chinatown evokes neither the film, the song by the Move or any specific Asian locale: instead, it builds suspensefully with intricate, Hendrix-ish guitar over slow burning organ.

With its playful beat and frenetic jazz-tinged guitar, Rigamarole sounds like Rock the Casbah done oldschool Memphis style. Local Jones, the next track, is a gorgeous, hypnotic, slowly swaying Stax/Volt ballad without words. They pick up the pace with Break It Up, a chase scene of sorts with a “batman” crescendo, and follow that with a cover of the Mad Men theme: with Restivo’s quietly menacing hammer-ons, it’s a portrait of a crime family, if only a white-collar one. The album winds up on a towering, anthemic, even majestic note with another original, Comanche, a Lynchian take on a Link Wray-style groove that roars with gospel intensity until a quick, unexpected fade. The City Champs spend a lot of time on the road: as with their previous album, they sound like they’d be a lot of fun live. Watch this space.

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November 22, 2010 Posted by | funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Booker T & the MG’s with Sharon Jones at Metrotech Park, Brooklyn NY 6/14/07

Daytime shows tend to be lacklustre because they’re a bitch to play. Musicians are by nature nocturnal creatures, and these guys were forced to take the stage a few minutes after noon. Meaning that they’d had to soundcheck at some ridiculously early hour of the morning, as if they’d had to get up for a dayjob.

Now imagine doing that if you’re in your sixties and you’ve been on tour for awhile. That’s the task legendary soul instrumentalists Booker T & the MG’s were facing. Yet not only did they manage to acquit themselves decently, they turned in an inspired performance that built slowly and finished on an ecstatic note. Sadly, the one most important person in the band was missing (and has been missing for a long time): drummer Al Jackson Jr., who died in 1975. Booker T & the MG’s without Al Jackson Jr. is kind of like the Stooges without Iggy, Sabbath without Ozzie or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs without that trust fund kid (which one, you ask? The girl in the raggedy dress). Jackson more than anyone defined their sound: simple, always in the groove, a minimalist who could make your hips move one way or the other with just a flick at the cymbals.

Instead, they had Anton Fig, who plays in the house band on one of those network tv gabfests. To his credit, he stayed in the background and other than a solo early on, didn’t clutter the songs. Instead, organist/bandleader Booker T. Jones, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and guitarist Steve Cropper held down the fort. They opened with a slowly shuffling, psychedelic groove version of Dylan’s You Gotta Serve Somebody, which was basically unrecognizable (which is probably why Jones told the crowd what it was). They continued in this vein for awhile. On the Gershwin standard Summertime, Cropper took an admirably lean, meaningful solo, like Albert King without all the long, sustained bends. By the time they got to their big 60s hit Hip-Hug Her, they’d picked up the pace. Soon after that, they played Green Onions and basically phoned it in, a tad fast. Essentially, it became the basis for another Cropper solo. It’s a silly little ditty, probably not what the band envisioned would become their signature song, and they played it as if they just wanted to get it out of the way and get on with the show.

The high point of their instrumentals was the classic Time Is Tight, which started out all churchified, just Jones’ organ and Dunn’s bass, sounded like Georgia on My Mind. Then Cropper’s guitar came in and they went into Theme from a Summer place for a couple of bars, which was delectably funny. Then Dunn started into his famous bassline, and they played a long, 10-minute version. Dunn has incredible touch: his melodic phrasing can change the meaning of a whole verse with just a subtle adjustment of how his fingers attack the strings, and this was fascinating to watch.

In their 60s heyday Booker T & the MG’s backed a whole pantheon of great soul and blues artists at various times, most notably Albert King, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, so it was only natural that this era’s greatest soul singer, New York’s own Sharon Jones, would be invited up to front the band for the latter half of the show. Though her own band the Dap-Kings are a mighty, authentic funk/soul group, today’s show was pretty close to a marriage made in heaven. Like Tina Turner, Jones uses her lower register most of the time (although her voice is considerably higher and clearer), exuding an earthy sensuality. Yet she exhibited equal amounts of subtlety, intelligence and taste in her phrasing. She only really kicks it into overdrive when she needs to: she’s a universe removed from the melismaddicts of corporate, so-called “R&B” who dream of becoming Beyonce’s replacement in the reunited Destiny’s Child.

Sharon Jones did a matter-of-fact take of the Wilson Pickett classic In the Midnight Hour, then Dunn launched into the most famous bass hammer-on in the history of rock, and the audience picked up on it right away. After the first couple of verses, the frontwoman brought Sitting on the Dock of the Bay way down and tried to get the audience to whistle along with the solo. Nobody, even the band, could do it. It was just as well: whistling is annoying, anyway, especially if it’s amplified. Then she took it even further down, sat down at the edge of the stage, then went into the audience for a bit. She took another Otis Redding standard, I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, even further down and ended on a whisper after a trick ending that was so quiet the audience missed it. The sky looked ominous and a sprinkle of rain could be felt through the trees, so they closed the show with Knock on Wood. Again, Dunn stole the show with this one, leaving the blues scale and reaching up to the high sixth note on the verses’ central hook. Jones got the obligatory solo from each band member as she introduced them.

This is a weekly Thursday noontime summer series booked by the Brooklyn Academy of Music featuring mostly older Black artists, and once in awhile they get someone really good. Props to whoever was responsible for scoring Booker T. There are additional shows worth seeing here on July 26 with Muddy Waters’ harp player James Cotton and his band, and on August 9 with roots reggae vets the Itals. And Sharon Jones plays a free show with her own band at Castle Clinton in Battery Park, also on July 26, with two free tickets per person being given away at the table in front of the fort starting at 5 PM.

June 14, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: The Dog Show Live at Club Midway 5/24/07

An aggressive, ballistic performance. The Dog Show is basically frontman/guitarist Jerome O’Brien backed by a rotating cast of A-list New York musicians. As with the great jazz groups of the 1950s, this band shifts shapes depending on who’s playing: with one cast of characters, they can sound like the Stones playing early Elvis Costello; with a different crew, they sound more like the Animals. This unit featured the players on their landmark album Hello, Yes, which was the last recording ever made at Jerry Teel’s legendary Fun House studios. This incarnation bears a very close resemblance to the Jam, mod beats and melodies fueled by pure punk energy and O’Brien’s corrosive, literate lyricism.

The rhythm section had come out of semi-retirement for this show and played like they’d never left. Although the drums were too high in the sound mix, this was a blessing in disguise: Josh Belknap played joyous, rolling thunder all night. You could have closed your eyes and believed that Keith Moon was behind the kit. Bassist Andrew Plonsky was also way up in the mix, playing his dexterous, melodic lines with a growly, trebly tone, defying any conventional wisdom about having to have calloused fingers to play well. Lead guitarist Dave Popeck, whose regular gig until recently was fronting the power trio Twin Turbine, was unfortunately way back in the mix for most of the show. Those lucky enough to figure out what he was doing by watching his fingers fly up and down the fretboard were, until the end of the show, the only people in the house who could have appreciated his searing leads. O’Brien cut loose in front of the band, delivering each line as if it was his last.

The entire set was songs from the Hello, Yes album, opening with Broken Treat, sounding very much like something from All Mod Cons. They followed it with a scorching version of the Stonesy White Continental. On the next song, a particularly terse version of the 6/8 blues Diamonds and Broken Glass, the band came way down on the third chorus, putting O’Brien’s bitter lyric front and center. It’s a dismissive slap at an ex-girlfriend’s “man who can open you up like a can,” building to the chorus:

There’s a diamond inside
For every tear you ever cried
And broken glass is all you’ll ever find
When you’re living a lie

Popeck, finally audible in the mix, followed with a brief, blistering, trebly solo, then the band brought it down again for a final refrain. Later in the set, on the bouncy I Heard Everything That You Said, Popeck built the tension to the breaking point on the chorus with sheets of guitar feedback. Then, on the gorgeously evocative Halcyon Days, a series of scenes from a happier era on the Lower East Side – now overrun with luxury housing and tourists from the outlying counties – Popeck let loose with his most pathological, Stoogoid solo of the night. The band built to an extended, pummeling crescendo out of the chorus on the next song of their tantalizingly brief set, Every Baby Boy. While the sound in the club was uncharacteristically muddy, the passion and intensity of the show made up for it.

One of the later bands on the bill had cancelled, but instead of giving the Dog Show a chance to stretch out and give their fans a little extra, the club pushed them back an hour. Which backfired: when the announcement was made, the audience trickled out for food or cheaper drinks elsewhere, returning just as the Dog Show were about to take the stage for real.

May 25, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments