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(Above: Robert Randolph and the Family Band examine the “Man in the Mirror.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kasnas City Star

As the temperature dipped into the low 60s Saturday night at Crossroads, Robert Randolph and his family band mounted a two-front war: against the elements and against early onset hibernation in the crowd.

Pedal steel virtuoso Randolph and his six-piece band immediately conquered the weather. Opening with the buoyant “Good Times (3 Stroke),” Randolph frequently jumped out from behind his instrument to hop around like his own hype man. That proved more than enough to get the blood flowing.

For whatever reason, the band had more trouble winning over the audience. The third-full venue was populated with people who would rather converse and take their pictures on cell phones than dance and listen. The only times the crowd was engaged was when Randolph gave them something to do, like clap or sing. Everything else was background music.

When the night’s first Michael Jackson tribute – “Man in the Mirror,” delivered gospel-style by Randolph’s sister Lenesha Randolph – failed to rouse the crowd, Randolph segued into a John Lee Hooker boogie. Inviting dozens of ladies onstage to shake their hips did the trick during the number, but once the song was over it seemed everyone wanted to talk about what or who they saw onstage.

“Nobody” offered plenty of participation during the chorus and several encouraged call-and-responses.  For a moment it seemed like everything would gel, but mic problems capsized “Gilligan,” scat-vocal number about the Minnow’s castaways played on a square Bo Diddley guitar, and the crowd grew restless with the ensuing jam.

Finally, after 75 minutes onstage, Randolph got the crowd on board. “I Don’t Know What You Come To Do” had plenty of cues to clap and stomp along and the audience joyously obliged. That bled into “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That,” which teased the riff to “Whole Lotta Love” and featured an organ sound straight out of “96 Tears.”

The second Jackson tribute went over better than the first. Sliding into the melody of “Rock With You” after a brief encore break, Randolph, who has been playing MJ songs long before the King of Pop’s passing, gave the crowd a forum to both sing and dance. The night ended with “Roll Up,” an unreleased number similar to what Randolph had been serving all night. This time everyone was up for it.

Randolph’s upbeat music rocks the middle ground between gospel and funk, and his songs are basically vamps and choruses. His band can ride a groove into the sunset, but when the organ player leaned into his B3 with some gospel chords the performance kicked up another level.

Wearing a silk do-rag, pink tie, dress shirt, black vest, plaid shorts and knee-high black nylon socks, Randolph looked like a cross between LL Cool J and a middle infielder.  If he was frustrated by the distracted crowd, Randolph didn’t show it. He grinned from ear to ear all night, dancing in his seat under the pedal steel or two-stepping across the stage behind a six-string.

When the parade of ladies left the stage after “Shake Your Hips” several of them planted a kiss on Randolph’s cheek. Lost in his playing, Randolph never looked up or acknowledged the gesture. He was wise to ignore the adulation from a crowd that gave little more than lip service for most of the night.

Setlist: Good Times (3 Stroke), Deliver Me, Man in the Mirror, Shake Your Hips, Black Betty, Nobody, Das EFX, Gilligan, I Don’t Know What You Come To Do, Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That, (Encore) Rock With You, Roll Up

(Below: Paper setlists are so passe. Photo by Joe Hutchison.)

RR-setlist2009-09-26

Keep Reading:
Robert Randolph and the Family Band at Voodoo Lounge, 2008

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(Above: Biz Markie rocks his classic “Just a Friend”  in Sweden on March 28, 2009.)

By Joel Francis

Rapper Biz Markie’s free performance at the Power and Light District Thursday night was less a concert than a warm-up/advertisement for his nightclub set later that night.

Markie was onstage for about 45 minutes. He spent 20 minutes behind turntables, 20 on the mic and five plugging the late show. The set-up was as old school as Markie’s material: two turntables and a microphone (and a laptop). After warming up the sparse crowd – the entire audience could have comfortably fit inside the Record Bar – with a brief DJ set of random favorites, Markie finally emerged from behind the tables.

A celebrated beat boxer before breaking through as an MC, Markie was Rahzel before Rahzel. His skills are no less impressive today. Vocal recreations of “Thriller” and “Beat It” drew big cheers, as Markie placed the mic on top of his head and against his throat to capture new sounds. Think of it as a funky ear-nose-and-throat exam you could dance to.

The dedicated audience took advantage of the ample dance space. Pockets of break dancing and circles of swinging bachelorette parties populated the floor close to the stage. The dancers were a nice visual diversion. There was little to see onstage beyond the Markie’s crew, turntables and the oversized, t-shirt and sweat-pant clad MC. The kaleidoscope of twisting colors and twirling ladies definitely added to the evening’s presentation.

Markie didn’t perform many songs, but he made the handful he did count. “Vapors” and “Nobody Beats the Biz” are old school staples that had everyone singing and bobbing along. Markie teased “Just A Friend,” his Top 10 hit from 1989, with the signature piano sample and backbeat urging everyone to sing along and throwing his weight behind every “oh baby.” The biggest of his songs, it was also the most disappointing. Markie only delivered one verse, turning the song into one big crowd participation number with looped chorus.

Frequently and appropriately omitted from the rolls of rap legends, Markie’s charm outstrips his talent. He didn’t shy from playing the clown, wagging his tongue to the crowd when they responded to a record he played and grinning at his modest singing abilities. The best of these moments was when he encouraged the crowd to join in his rendition of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Markie’s signing was hilariously out of tune and he free-styled new verses, despite repeatedly telling the audience to sing along if they knew the words.

Although the set was definitely slight, it was also free, which meant all it cost was a little time. That hour was definitely a good time.

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(Above: Blondie perform “My Heart Will Go On” and validate the cliche: It’s the singer, not the song.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Blondie performed all four of their No. 1 hits during Tuesday’s concert at Crossroads KC, but they opened their encore set with someone else’s chart topper.

Playing with an energy that recalled their CBGB’s heyday, the sextet slammed through a surprising cover of Celine Dion’s “Titanic hit “My Heart Will Go On.” It is unsure what was more shocking: that Blondie covered Celine Dion; or that it was really, really good.

If Blondie ever get around to making another album, that cover should definitely be included. Until then, the back catalog satisfied the nearly full venue. The 80-minute set played like a greatest hits album and clocked in at about the same length.

High points included a blistering “Rapture” that went from the rap hit to punk to a blues jam and finally ended up in the band’s hip-hop update, “No Exit.” Debbie Harry’s voice isn’t as strong as it used to be, but “Maria” put to rest any questions on her strength as a singer. She nailed the big notes of the chorus and the lower register of the verses.

Drummer Clem Burke was the group’s secret weapon. Throughout the night, the founding member set the tone by opening and closing most numbers, driving the rest of the band with his powerful playing and delivering emphatic fills that always seemed to enhance the performance. His moody playing underlined the dark moodiness of the one-two of “Fade Away and Radiate” and “Screaming Skin.”

When the band stretched out on “Atomic,” Harry retreated to the shadows at the side of the stage. She may have been out of the spotlight, but it was clear with the two detours into her solo catalog that Harry was always in the driver’s seat.

Harry reclaimed center stage with the reggae sing-along of “The Tide Is High” that drew the biggest response of the night. Harry made sure the crowd stayed involved by switching from to a cover of “I’ll Take You There.” She may have transformed the Staples Singers’ hit from social anthem to come-on, but the audience still hung on every word. When the band flipped back to “Tide,” there were scores of arms waving and fingers aloft, responding to the chorus “The tide is high but I’m holding on/I’m gonna be your number one.”

Fifty minutes earlier it was the band holding one finger in the air, as the performers frantically signaled to the soundman to turn up their monitors. Opening number “Call Me” suffered from dropped coverage, with Harry’s weak vocals buried in a horrible mix that seemed to frustrate both band and audience. The sound improved during “Hanging on the Telephone,” the next number, but it took until the fourth song, “The Hardest Part,” for everything to click.

Once the sound was solved, the band rocked like a finely tuned machine. Although only half of the six musicians onstage were original members, most of the rest have been onboard since the band reunited 10 years ago.

The evening ended with three straight No. 1 hits. After the Dion cover and the disco thump of “Heart of Glass,” Blondie segued into “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” Michael Jackson moments have become the cliché of the summer, but this inspired pairing made complete musical sense and kept bodies moving.

Few of Blondie’s peers in the late ‘70s New York punk scene had as much mainstream success as Blondie, and even fewer of those acts are still going today. Although the night may have ended sooner than expected, there were few complaints with what it delivered. At this point, we’re happy to take what we can get.

Setlist: Call Me, Hanging on the Telephone, Two Times Blue, The Hardest Part, Fade Away and Radiate, Screaming Skin, Maria, Atomic, The Tide Is High/I’ll Take You There, You’re Too Hot, Rapture/jam/No Exit, One Way Or Another. Encore: My Heart Will Go On, Heart of Glass, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

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(Above: One of the few Jamie Foxx videos on Youtube that his label allows to be shared.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Three days after Michael Jackson’s death, Jamie Foxx appeared as host of the BET Awards clad in a red leather, Thriller-era jacket and sequined glove. After performing “Beat It” and telling a few jokes about Jackson’s ever-changing nose, Foxx paid tribute to the fallen icon by moonwalking across the stage.

And when Foxx performs a concert at the Sprint Center on Saturday, Jackson again will have his moment.

“We definitely do a Michael Jackson moment at our shows and let his music play,” Foxx said in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of the media’s Michael Jackson coverage has become a circus. We try to concentrate on what he gave us — his music.”

After walking the tightrope of poking fun at Jackson without offending, Foxx closed out the BET Awards with a duet of “I’ll Be There” with Ne-Yo. After the pair finished, Jackson’s sister Janet and father, Joe, came out and thanked everyone for their support.

“My job that night was to keep things light, keep things fun,” Foxx said. “Having the family there was tough, because I wanted to be respectful and I knew Janet was going to come out at the end. I have to commend BET, though. They had to do an awards show when the biggest entertainer in the world passes away. With very little money and very little time, they completely turned the show around.”

When Foxx last played Kansas City at the Music Hall in March, 2007, he was best known for his Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles and parodying that character on the hit single “Gold Digger” with Kanye West. For this tour, Foxx has the success and chops under his belt to prove that he’s not just another actor living out a fantasy as a musician.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned since the last tour is that you should go out while your record is hot, not wait two years,” Foxx said, remembering his 2005 hit “Unpredictable,” which he didn’t promote until 2007. “Right now, this very moment, ‘Blame It’ is still rolling (on the charts). It’s sizzling.”

When Stevie Wonder played Starlight Theatre recently, he stopped the show for a few minutes to have the soundman pump his favorite song this year through the PA. Within moments, the crowd that had been grooving to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Living for the City” was grinding to Foxx’s “Blame It.”

Even without the endorsements, “Blame It” is one of the unofficial songs of the summer. It topped the Urban Contemporary charts for 12 consecutive weeks and as of mid-July it had been in the Top 40 for 26 weeks.

Like many of the previous summertime hits, “Blame It” gets a boost from the ubiquitous T-Pain. He won’t be at the Sprint Center, but Foxx said audiences won’t miss T-Pain or any of the other artists that appear on his albums.

“For those songs with features, I have guys who sing those parts, so we don’t miss a step,” Foxx said. “My back-up singer does a great job performing T-Pain’s part. It’s a lot of fun, but it also taught me another lesson: Don’t lean on your features too heavily when recording, so you can still do them alone on tour.”

Before Foxx was an Oscar-winning actor or a comedian on “In Living Color” and “Def Comedy Jam,” he was a musician. Foxx started taking piano lessons at age 5 and released his first album in 1994. It took 11 years and an appearance on Twista’s “Slow Jamz” — again with West — before Foxx released a follow-up album.

When he began performing as a musician on the big stage, Foxx drew on his experiences as an actor and comedian.

“Through playing live I learned how to pace myself,” Foxx said. “I learned I could take my time with a slow song. As a comedian, I am always looking for a reaction. But when you sing a slow song, you don’t need an immediate reaction. Sometimes people want to take it all in before they respond. I don’t need to go all over the stage to make sure they like it.”

Whatever the tempo, Foxx pulls on his acting background and treats each song as if he’s playing a character. Upbeat songs get a character who knows how to party and have fun, Foxx said.

“When it’s time for slower music, I change clothes and put on a suit,” he said. “For ‘Blame It,’ I wear a sparkly jacket, because that’s what I felt that character would wear. Everything’s always a character.”

Foxx appeared as a different kind of musician earlier this year. In the movie “The Soloist,” he portrayed a homeless, schizophrenic, classically trained cellist. Don’t look for that character to appear onstage.

“No more cello for me,” Foxx said. “I just play piano.”


the show
Jamie Foxx and his 50-city “Intuition Tour” come to Kansas City at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Sprint Center. Doors open at 7. Tickets are $59.75 and $69.75 at www.ticketmaster.com.

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(Above: Stevie Wonder performs “Never Can Say Goodbye” the day after Michael Jackson’s death. Wonder dedicated his performance at Starlight Theater to Jackson.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Stevie Wonder walked on stage at Starlight Theatre on Friday night with zero fanfare and cut to the heart of the night before playing a single note.

“God blessed us with a talented man who brought us joy with his dancing, music, videos and all of that,” Wonder said as part of his five-minute monologue about his friend and former Motown labelmate Michael Jackson.
Finally settling behind his grand piano, Wonder delivered a powerful acapella performance of “Love’s In Need of Love Today” that gave me goosebumps. After two verses, the band joined in. When the song was over, Wonder led them into a spontaneous version of “Kansas City” that caught most of the musicians off-guard.It was that kind of night. The mood altered between moving tributes to Jackson, who died the day before, upbeat hits and random moments.

It took Wonder a half hour to get the nearly sold-out crowd on its feet. Once “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” finally did the trick, Wonder ensured they stayed up by playing the signature bassline to “Billie Jean.” With no vocal support from the stage, Wonder let the crowd sing the entire song.

The audience did a good job at impromptu karoke the first time around, but was less successful in carrying “I Can’t Help It.” Wonder has good reason to be proud of the song he wrote for Jackson that ended up on his “Off the Wall” album, but few in the audience were familiar with the number.

The crowd did better on Wonder’s classic material. “All I Do,” “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City” all drew big responses.

Later in the set, Wonder led the band through a jam with his vocoder. Safe behind the distortion of this electronic vocal altering device, Wonder was surprisingly honest.

“Last night and today I was in so much pain,” Wonder said, “but I knew if I played for you I would play a little better.”

Still employing the vocoder, Wonder segued into the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” The poignant moment was made even more mournful by the vocal alteration and Wonder’s decision to let a male backing singer take the final verse. Emotions built as Wonder led the crowd through the chorus again and again, turning the song into a remembrance and a celebration.

Wonder was backed by a 14-piece band that included four backing vocalists – including his daughter Aisha Morris – two percussionists, keyboard players and guitarist and a rhythm and horn section.

Given his orchestrations on record, it was no surprise the band arrangements were sublime. The ensemble knew the right moments to back off and give Wonder the spotlight and the right time to come in and kick the performance up a notch. As usual, the sound at Starlight was great.

After the South American syncopation of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” Wonder paused for a moment behind the keyboard. Playing a gorgeous piece of music, he started humming and mumbling until the words congealed into stream-of-consciousness thoughts about Jackson being “in the arms of God.” The energy from this moving melody was poured into an amazing reading of “You and I” that found Wonder showing of his vocal range and its resilience to time and age.

Randomness struck again in the last 30 minutes of the night when Wonder had his sound man play Jamie Foxx and T-Pain’s “Blame It (On the Alcohol)” over the PA while he rested his throat and the band hydrated. That was followed by a jazz number performed by Wonder’s daughter. The song was pleasant, but not what folks came to hear.

Two other shortcomings also bear mention. The only time Wonder played harmonica was during a cover of Chick Corea’s “Spain.” His solo brief solo there was both a tease and a crime. Also, Wonder’s ‘60s catalog was completely ignored. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” from 1970 was as far back as Wonder went for the night, which meant “Uptight,” “Hey Love,” “My Cherie Amor” and others were forgotten.

Wonder ended the night with the murderer’s row of “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” “Sir Duke,” “Superstition” and “As” that more than erased any minor missteps. As the final notes of “As” died out, the strains of “ABC” faded in. The Jackson 5 number kicked off a pre-recorded medley of Wonder’s favorite Jackson moments.

As the tape played, everyone remained onstage dancing, singing along and brushing away stray tears. Two hours and 20 minutes after taking the stage, Wonder and his band filed slowly offstage as “Man in the Mirror” played. There was no encore, but there was nothing left to say.

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Setlist: Love’s In Need of Love Today, Going to Kansas City> Bird of Beauty> As If You Read My Mind> Master Blaster (Jammin’), Billie Jean, Did I Hear You Say You Love Me> All I Do, I Can’t Help It, Vocoder Jam> Never Can Say Goodbye > Higher Ground, Spain> Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing, Improvised MJ tribute> You and I, Living For the City, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Blame It (On the Alcohol) (Jamie Foxx and T-Pain song played over PA), I’m Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life (Aisha Morris, lead vocals), Sir Duke> Superstition, As, Michael Jackson medley (played over PA)

Keep reading:
More Stevie Wonder articles from The Daily Record.

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(Above: The long version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” Soak in all six minutes – then play it again.)

By Joel Francis

In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, I wrote about the Michael I liked best. The young Michael, who fronted the Jackson 5, grew into his own and delivered his greatest statement and one of the best pop/dance albums ever on the cusp of the ’80s.

But that isn’t the Michael Jackson I remember. I recall the Jackson’s Victory tour kicking off at Arrowhead in 1984. Everyone at swim lessons that day was talking about it, but I didn’t really know who Michael was and what the fuss was all about. I have no memories of Michael’s follow-up stops at Kemper Arena four years later.

Later, all I knew about Michael Jackson were the Weird Al parodies, the “sha-mon” self-parodies and – Eddie Van Halen and Slash’s guitar solos aside – a bunch of slick pop that didn’t conform to my burgeoning rockist sensibilities.

Retrospectively, it’s easy to turn the finger on myself and laugh at how ignorant and dismissive I was at the time. In my defense, “Bad” and “Dangerous,” the two Michael Jackson albums that hit when I was coming of musical age, were unsuccessful attempts to replicate “Thriller.” By the time giant Jacko statues were floating in the Thames River to promote “HISstory,” Jackson was so far removed from his glory days and so entrenched in the paparazzi-enabled tabloid journalism that defined his life that I couldn’t take him seriously as an artistic force.

When someone tried to explain to me that the ghost-white, thin-nosed Jacko on the talk shows was the same African-American child who sang those Jackson 5 songs, I balked for two reasons. Firstly, it’s still hard to believe anyone could transform so drastically over such a short period of time. More importantly, however, those songs were great! They may have been created with the same crass marketing motives that plagued post-“Thriller” Jackson, but somehow this stuff more than held up.

One of the guys in my dad’s National Guard unit used to play “ABC” so often that my dad said he never needed to hear the song again. I can see where my dad was coming from; that could be pretty annoying. But I can also understand the impulse to play that song over and over. Great songs create a world we get to live in for a few minutes. Usually that world vanishes into the next track sooner than we’d like, and when it does you have the immediate desire to return. At two minutes, 30 seconds, “ABC” is not long enough.

Fortunately, I can make a playlist shoving “ABC” against “I Want You Back,” “Black and White,” “I’ll Be There,” my all-time favorite Michael jam “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and the rest of his finest moments. It will be in the air for the rest of the weekend, allowing me to live in Michael’s musical world once again.

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(Above: Bill Cosby emcees the Jackson 5’s infectious reading of “I Want You Back.”)

By Joel Francis

Before Michael Jackson was the King of Pop or Wacko Jacko he was little Michael, the adorable child singer for the Jackson 5. Michael and his brothers were the final star group to come out of Hitsville U.S.A. Their career bridges the gap between Motown’s glory days in Detroit and its descent to becoming just another record label in Los Angeles.

Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers and all the other tween pop stars with arena tours and television shows would be nothing today without the groundwork Michael and the Jackson 5 laid in the early ‘70s. Motown founder Berry Gordy was among the first businessmen to recognize how lucrative the tweener market could be. He marketed the Jackson 5 to fans the same age as the performers. Black or white, young Americans tried to imitate the dance moves and routines they saw on the Ed Sullivan Show, network television specials and even the band’s own Saturday morning cartoon.

Like that other brilliant piece of musical marketing, the Monkees, the Jackson 5 didn’t write their own material. Holland-Dozier-Holland may have departed, but Gordy was able to round up another ad hoc songwriting team to write material for the teen sensations. Anonymously dubbed “The Corporation” so other labels wouldn’t steal them away from Motown, the team was responsible for “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save,” “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Sugar Daddy” to name but a few of their J5 hits.

The music may have been marketed to tweens, but it more than holds up today. The titles alone of the aforementioned songs should be enough for smiles to spread on most faces. Don’t worry if they don’t, though. After a few bars have played, they will jolt the rest of the way into your consciousness, making you involuntarily start tapping your feet and grooving along with the happy rhythms.

In 1972, 14-year-old Michael started cutting his own records for Motown. His early solo hits include “Got to Be There,” a cover of “Rockin’ Robin.” Michael’s first No. 1 solo hit was the title song to the film “Ben.” The movie may have been about a boy and his pet rat (Ben was the rat, of course), but Michael’s song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Jackson’s biggest moment occurred when he was no longer on the Motown label, but front and center on Motown’s stage. In 1983 a television special was shot in Los Angeles celebrating 25 years of Motown records. Many of the label’s biggest hits reunited or returned to pay tribute to Berry Gordy and Hitsville, U.S.A. After performing with his brothers as the Jackson 5 for the first time in eight years, Michael took the stage himself to perform his new song “Billie Jean” and debut the dance step that defined the ‘80s – the moonwalk.

That iconic moment helped propel Michael’s career to unfathomable heights, but his music was never as fresh, fun and invigorating as it was before. As the decade fell away, Michael fell into parody and a host of other well-known problems.

But forget about all of that. Tonight, celebrate the kid who couldn’t stop smilin’, dancin’ and singin’ in front of those day-glo bell bottoms and beret-topped afros. Remember Michael for his best years on Motown.

Keep Reading:
More Michael Jackson Memories
Stevie Wonder Celebrates Michael Jackson at Starlight

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