(Above: Chuck Brown reworks the “Batman” theme at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.)
By Joel Francis
ANNAPOLIS, MD – When you’re as well-known and revered as Chuck Brown, it’s hard going anywhere unnoticed. Especially onstage.
Brown rattled off shout-outs, hellos and congratulations for several minutes before his eight-piece band finally settled down to business for the first of two Black Friday shows at Rams Head Live.
As the reigning Godfather of Go-Go, Brown showed off his guitar chops and sharp horn section with the extended opener “Love Theme from The Godfather.” Brown then put everyone in the holiday mood with a reading of “Merry Christmas, Baby” that lived somewhere between B.B. King and George Clinton. But the dance floor set up to the left of the stage remained conspicuously vacant.
The opening words of “Run Joe” – a cross between the Coasters, hip hop, reggae and a children’s song – unleashed a stampede to the floor. The moving multitude knew exactly when to throw Brown’s catch-phrases back at him, and forced the 73-year-old performer to split his time between the bodies in front of the stage and the spirited congregation on the side.
Go-go is a funk hybrid driven by congas and percussion and a palette wide enough to include jazz, blues, pop and Caribbean influences. Brown helped pioneer the form in the mid-‘70s. Born in Washington, D.C., the genre has yet to catch on beyond the Mid-Atlantic states. Brown’s shows feel like a cross between Parliament-Funkadelic and Jimmy Buffett.
Like Buffett, Brown has a dedicated following who know all the calls and responses and relish the opportunity to feel like part of the band. And like P-Funk, Brown’s band carries a strong groove that can hang on or switch up as often – and quickly – as their leader commands.
The heart of the show was Brown’s magnificent medley of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Midnight Sun,” “Moody’s Mood for Love” and the “Woody Woodpecker” theme. These songs were old when Brown started performing them a couple decades ago, but they’ve rarely felt as vital. Brown resuscitated these standards and made them feel like not nostalgic night club pieces but animated dance club anthems. For a moment, it felt a little like how all the stories described the Savoy Ballroom in its heyday.
But Brown’s set isn’t rooted in the past. He invited his daughter, keyboardist K.K., out front to lead the crowd through Lady GaGa’s “Pokerface” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” Thanks to the energy of the crowd and spirited performance by the band, these ubiquitous numbers also felt fresh. The band also proved a lesson that contemporary record producers have yet to learn: Pop music sounds infinitely better with a live rhythm section driving the track.
The evening ended with Lil Benny, another guest singer, leading the crowd through the pop and lock and other dance moves. In a year packed with Michael Jackson tributes, the Benny delivered one of the best. His version of “Butterfly” brought the song out of its cocoon.
Although he never left the stage, Brown closed the set by reclaiming the mic and performing “Bustin’ Loose,” his signature song. At 80 minutes, the performance felt a little light, and Brown conceded too much time to the other vocalists, but no one seemed to mind. Besides, another show was always right around the corner.
With the house lights up, Brown ended the night just as it started, talking with the crowd. Although Rams Head Live isn’t much bigger than the Bottleneck in Lawrence, Kan. – the biggest difference is that the room is positioned horizontally with the stage in the middle, instead of vertically with the stage at the end – it was going to Brown a while to reach the dressing room. And he was going to enjoy every moment of the journey.