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(Above: Soul singer Anthony Hamilton takes a Midland Theater crowd to church in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The titles are almost identical, but the songs couldn’t be further apart. The pair arrived back-to-back about the one-hour mark of soul singer Anthony Hamilton’s Friday night concert at the Midland Theater.

“Prayin’ for You” was a jubilant gospel jam that found Hamilton singing and dancing in the middle of the crowd and featured a nice blues slide-guitar solo. A quick wardrobe change brought the mournful, contemplative “Pray for Me.”

The contrast displayed Hamilton’s chops as a songwriter, vocal abilities and his six-piece band’s versatility. The numbers also managed to capture the crowd’s complete attention in two very different ways. Several moments competed with “Prayin’ for You” as the night’s biggest party, but none was more intimate than “Pray for Me.”

hamilton_FYI_06062014_spf_0126fThe band arrived onstage like it had been shot from a cannon. The three backing vocalists also served as hype men, lathering the crowd for Hamilton’s appearance and opening number “Sucka For You.” A bit of Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” let everyone know the historic theater was hosting a block party tonight. A well-placed piece of “No Diggity” at the end of “Woo” cemented the give-and-take between stage and crowd. Hamilton’s dancing during that number produced many squeals of delight.

Most of the performances extended well past their album length. Hamilton let the band stretch out, incorporating bits of Philly soul, Stevie Wonder, Prince Earth, Wind and Fire and hip hop into his original material. He also wasn’t shy about sharing his band. Everyone in the ensemble got a moment to shine.

One of the two keyboard players dropped some nice “Talking Book”-era talkbox on “Woo.” The bass player sported an impressive Mohawk and prowled the stage like he was the headliner. His bass and the bass drum were the focus of the mix. At times they drowned out the keyboards and guitar and threatened to swallow the vocals as well, but the mix improved as the show progressed.

Hamilton closed the 90-minute set with his breakthrough hit “Charlene,” which segued into the Dells’ “A Heart is a House of Love.” By the time Hamilton started introducing his band people were heading to the exits like someone pulled the fire alarm. They were either hurrying for the announced photo op with Hamilton in the lobby or eager to take the evening’s energy to another environment.

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(Above: ‘Song stylist’ Bettye LaVette captivates a sold-out crowd at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Mo. with an a capella version of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bettye LaVette didn’t write any of the songs she performed for 90 minutes in front of a sold-out crowd Saturday at Knuckleheads, but she owned every single one of them. It’s hard to imagine the original songwriters — including John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Lucinda Williams and Cee-Lo Green— investing more emotion than LaVette poured into her performance. Her voice ached and cracked with every syllable and her arms and legs writhed on every word.

Chatty and playful, LaVette told the audience the biggest reason why she covered Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was so her grandchildren would think she was hip. By stripping the song of its kinetic energy and slowing the tempo way down, LaVette turned the ubiquitous hit into a cathartic confession. It also illustrated why she’d rather be called a “song stylist” than a singer.

09.03.08_bettye_lavette253At any other concert LaVette’s mournful, pleading reading of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” would have been the showstopper. Saturday night it was only one of many powerful moments that earned pin-drop silence from the crowd. Other stand-out moments included “The Forecast” and the haunting country ballads “Choices” and “The More I Search (The More I Die).”

While many of the top performances were quiet, LaVette and her four-piece band did a great job of varying tempos and textures. A cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” was bathed in a swampy funk. “I’m Tired” was wrapped in a twisted country-rock guitar riff. The band’s best moment came on “Your Turn to Cry” when it successfully re-reated the Muscle Shoals production from LaVette’s shelved, would-be 1972 recording.

LaVette discussed those disappointments frankly, sharing how much she wanted to be on American Bandstand and how crushed she was when the show’s producers found her debut 1962 single “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man” too suggestive. She said that much of her life had been pretty good, except that she was continually denied her biggest joy, the opportunity to sing.

The happiness LaVette has found over the past 10 years when her career finally started taking off was evident in the night’s final songs, “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven” and an a capella reading of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”

Setlist: The Word; The Forecast; Take Me Like I Am; Choices; Joy; Your Turn to Cry; They Call It Love; Crazy; My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man; The More I Search (The More I Die); I’m Tired; Love Reign O’er Me; Close As I’ll Get to Heaven; I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

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Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

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(Above: Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears rip up the Riot Room in Kansas City, Mo. on Valentine’s Day, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Thursday may be the first time Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears have headlined a show in Kansas City, but it’s far from the bandleader’s first visit.

The soul and roots music front man has lots of family in the area. For several months in the mid-’90s, his family lived with his grandmother off Cleveland Avenue.

“I was only about 15 or 16 at the time,” Lewis said. “I remember hanging out in the neighborhood playing basketball, hearing gunshots, BBQ. We weren’t there long, only about 6 months.”

black_joe_lewis_soundcheckmagazine_03Just a few years later, Lewis was busking on the streets of Austin, Texas. Five years ago, he started assembling the Honeybears, a five-piece horn and rhythm section welded tight after countless shows and miles touring by van.

Lewis has shuffled in and out of town on family visits several times over the years, but his band is in a vastly different place from when it last stopped in the area.

In 2010, when the group played the Bottleneck in Lawrence, it was touring on the back of its first full-length album, “Tell ’Em What Your Name Is!” In the two years since, the Honeybears dropped their sophomore LP and shuffled members. A third album is underway.

“Our set now is mostly new stuff, but we still play the older songs, too,” Lewis said. “It’s a lot of fun for us. We know fans sometimes want to hear stuff off the records, but they get into it. It will be nice when the record comes out and people will know what to expect.”

Right now Lewis’ plan is to get the six-piece combo in the studio once a two-week tour wraps up, then try to set up a distribution deal. Lewis said he hopes to have the album out this summer but doesn’t have a timeline. Regardless of when it’s released, Lewis can’t wait for fans to hear it.

“I feel like with what we’re doing right now, I’m putting out my first record,” Lewis said. “On a lot of it, we sound like a rock and roll power trio with a horn section.”

Sometimes songs start from skeletons worked up by Lewis or bass player Bill Stevenson. Other ideas come out of jams, either during rehearsal, sound check or a show.

“Somebody might record our jam on their phone and we’ll come back to it, but even when we’re playing live, the stuff that sounds cool, I’ll work on lyrics for it,” Lewis said. “For me the structure of the song is the meat of the song, and the lyrics put it over the top.”

Forces that compromised the band’s sound in the past are gone now. The contract is up with label Lost Highway, which commissioned DJs to create a Honeybears mix with an electronic and hip-hop flavor aimed at the dance floor. Band members who pressured Lewis to clean up the band’s sound are gone.

“To me, those first albums sound wimpy,” Lewis said. “Back in the day, different guys wanted to do different stuff, and I went with it because that goes with being in a band. Now that stuff isn’t around. I get to cut loose.”

A fully unleashed Lewis could be dangerous. There’s not a lot of sheen or timidity in the Honeybears’ catalog. Lewis doesn’t have any trouble channeling Wilson Pickett or Howlin’ Wolf. He isn’t as concerned with re-creating a specific sound or era as are contemporaries Sharon Jones, the Daptone family and Raphael Saadiq, but he works in enough similar circles to draw comparisons.

“Honestly, I think we’re doing something completely different,” Lewis said. “I feel like we’re American roots music with our own twist. Once the new record comes out, the differences will be more obvious.”

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(Above: There isn’t a scenario which R. Kelly can’t eroticize. Here’s the fantastic “In the Kitchen.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Plenty of R&B singers are happy to work a couple into a hot lather, and then let them retreat to more intimate surroundings. R. Kelly would be first in line to stand in the doorway and watch.

For nearly 20 years, Kelly’s sexually outrageous songs have been a staple on urban radio. Although mainstream audiences know him best for the saccharine “I Believe I Can Fly,” Saturday’s Sprint Center crowd had no problem singing along to any of his dozens of Top 40 R&B hits.

Kelly’s most recent album is “Love Letter,” an album that found channels Burt Bacharach more than “Letters to Penthouse,” but he had no trouble mixing the upscale new material with the more explicit older tunes.

“They said I shouldn’t mix the classy songs with the sex songs,” Kelly told the crowd, “but sex is classy.”

The 90-minute concert was divided into three acts. While each act was distinct, they also felt unfinished. Kelly and his tight eight-piece band rapidly flitted from song to song, rarely lingering on one number long enough to see it all the way through.

The first part included slow jams such as “Number One Hit,” “Happy People” and a chopped and screwed version of “Thoia Thoing.” During “Strip for You” Kelly encouraged women to take off their clothes for him. A few stray T-shirts flew his way.

After a short video, Kelly re-emerged with some of his best club tracks, working the crowd into a frenzy with “Fiesta,” “I’m a Flirt” and “Ignition (remix).” Kelly let the crowd handle Kelly Price’s part on their duet “Friend of Mine,” which segued into the soul rant “Real Talk.” He returned to the sultry material with “When a Woman Loves” before inviting about three dozen women from the crowd onstage for “Step in the Name of Love.”

The upper level of the Sprint Center was curtained off, but the lower bowl was mostly full. More empty seats emerged the farther one got from the stage, but both the performer and the audience’s consistently high energy made the room seem packed.

Relentlessly shuffling through Kelly’s catalog in incomplete snippets was like spending time with a sex addict with attention deficit disorder. Instead of persistently tossing pebbles at the bedroom window, the jukebox approach was more like running around the house and ringing the doorbell, testing the patio door, rapping on the windows and pulling on the storm cellar door.

Keyshia Cole and Marsha Ambrosius performed 30-minute sets, but the experiences were night and day. Ambrosius, formerly part of the duo Floetry, has the better voice, but her set was poorly paced. A diversion into old school R&B hits masked her talents and wasted set time. Her performance was nearly salvaged by a reading of Floetry’s “Say Yes” and her own “Far Away.” Cole’s set was nonstop energy. The music paused long enough for Cole to call the ladies to their feet where many remained for the rest of her set, which included anthems like “I Should Have Cheated,” “Let It Go” and “Take Me Away.” Let’s hope Ambrosius was taking notes.

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Gladys Knight and the Pips – “If I Were Your Woman,” Pop #9, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Relationship fantasies were nothing new at Motown – Mary Wells’ “The One Who Really Loves You” was one of the label’s earliest singles. But Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1971 single “If I Were Your Woman” shows how much Hitsville had grown up during the ‘60s. The song removes the concept from the realm of schoolgirl crushes and infuses it with some serious grown-up desire.

When “If I Were Your Woman” came out the Pips were on a run of three consecutive Top 5 R&B hits, dating back to 1969’s No. 3 “The Nitty Gritty.” The group was determined to keep this streak intact and also bolster their album sales; none of their LPs had cracked the Top 10. They accomplished both. The single went all the way to the top of the R&B charts, and the album – given the same name – lodged at No. 4.

Knight’s smoky, smoldering voice played no small role in that achievement. Listeners who grew up with “Baby Love” no doubt enjoyed hearing love songs that matured with them. Knight sumptuously plays the role of a woman in love with a man trapped in a bad relationship. Knight knows she can make him the man he deserves to be, if only he could muster the strength to walk away … and she could find the courage to confront him face-to-face.

Knight sings with the passion of a woman pouring out her deepest desires to the darkness, a conviction rooted in the comfort of knowing these words will never face the harsh scrutiny of daylight. As the song fades, it is easy to imagine Knight drifting off to sleep as her would-be beau lies awake in bed next to his partner, wondering how he wound up in this predicament. The next time Knight and her man meet, their only exchanges will be furtive glances across the room and brief, awkward conversation punctuated by nervous laughter.

Written by Gloria Jones, Clay McMurray and Pam Sawyer and produced by McMurray, “If I Were Your Woman” inspired several covers. The Jean Terrell-fronted Supremes recorded a version the following year, in 1972. One year later, Jones – better known as the original singer of the song “Tainted Love,” later recorded by Soft Cell, and girlfriend of T. Rex glam rocker Marc Bolan – recorded her own version for her second solo album.

Bonnie Bramlett, formerly known as half of Delaney and Bonnie, followed suit in 1976. The unfairly ignored Bettye LaVette put her stamp on the song on her only Motown album, 1980s “Tell Me A Lie.” Eight years later Stephanie Mills put the song back on the charts, where it reached No. 19 on the Hot Black Singles chart (now known as the Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart). That same year found the only male interpretation of the number, when George Michael performed it at Nelson Mandella’s 70th birthday tribute. Somehow people were still shocked when he came out of the closet a decade later.

Most recently, Alicia Keys included the song as part of a medley on her sophomore album, and gave it the stand-alone treatment on her 2005 live album “MTV Unplugged.”

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(Above: Solomon Burke takes a mid-day festival crowd to church with “If You Need Me.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Soul legend Solomon Burke died Sunday at an airport in Amsterdam. The 70-year old singer was best known for 1960s soul classics such as “Got To Get You Off My Mind” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” which was covered by Wilson Pickett and the Blues Brothers.

Although he made his name in the ‘60s, Burke released several stunning albums in the last decade of his life. His 2002 comeback “Don’t Give Up On Me” featured songs written specifically for him by Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Nick Lowe. In 2006, Buddy Miller helmed “Nashville,” an Americana-themed album featuring support from Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. 2005’s “Make Do With What You Got” is another crucial piece of Burke’s renaissance.

I never got to see Burke perform. In fact, unless I missed him at the old Blues and Jazz Fest, I can’t recall him even stopping in Kansas City in the last 15 years. I always hoped Bill Shapiro would be able to book him for one of his excellent Cypress Avenue Live at the Folly series. Sadly, it was not to be.

But while I missed out, thousands of fans around the world were able to enjoy the king of rock and soul up close. Writer Peter Guralnick devotes an entire chapter to Burke in his classic 1986 book “Sweet Soul Music.” Plenty has been written about Burke’s musical legacy; the following recollections from the book spotlight Burke’s colorful personality.

 

Burke during his glory days.

 

Burke was signed to Atlantic Records in 1961, in part to fill the hole that had been left when Ray Charles departed for ABC. Burke had, Guralnick wrote, “a combination of Sam Cooke at his mellifluous best and Ray Charles at his deep-down and funkiest, an improbable mix of sincerity, dramatic artifice, bubbling good humor, multitextured vocal artistry.”

Music was Burke’s love, but he always had a little something extra going on the side. Before signing to Atlantic, the Philadelphia-based singer struggled to bridge the gap between gospel and something bigger. When his first independent singles didn’t perform to expectation, he briefly left the music business to become a mortician, a skill he never completely abandoned. During an early Atlantic recording session, he begged out early to return to Philadelphia where he worked a snow-removal job for $3.50 an hour.

The ability – and willingness – to deliver a wide range of musical styles, from country to soul to gospel, not only made Burke a nationwide star, but disguised his race in a still very-segregated landscape. In “Sweet Soul Music” Burke described a Friday night gig in Mississippi that looked like a dream.

“They had those big flatbed trucks with the loudspeakers hooked up, and the black people was just bringing us fried chicken and ribs,” Burke recalled. “Oh, my God, they got corn on the cob, they making cakes and pies, they got hot bread, barbecued ribs …. Oh, man, I can’t begin to tell you – it looked like the festival of the year!”

Before the band went on, the sheriff instructed them when to take the stage and end their set, and promised protection and an escort back to the highway. When the band went onstage at the appointed time Burke noticed odd lights in the distance.

“All the way as far as your eye could see was lights, like people holding a blowtorch, coming, they was just coming slowly, they was coming toward the stage,” Burke said. “They got closer and closer. Man, they was 30,000 Ku Klux Klanners in their sheets – it was their annual rally. The whole time we played we played that show those people kept coming. With their sheets on. Little kids with little sheets, ladies, man, everybody just coming up, just moving under the lights, everyone dancing and having a good time.”

True his word, the sheriff made sure there was no trouble, and the band departed unscathed – not that they lingered any longer than necessary.

In 1964, radio station WEBB in Baltimore crowned Burke the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul. Burke took the title seriously and began performing from a thrown and wearing a crown. It was his royal cape, however, that caused the biggest problem.

 

If you haven't read Peter Guralnick's wonderful book, you are missing out.

 

The other reigning king of R&B had featured a cape in his shows for some time, and James Brown took offense to what he considered Burke’s stealing part of the act. The feud came to a head when Brown hired Burke to open in Chicago for $10,000. That was good money for a one-night stand in the early ‘60s, made even better when Burke was told he could use the James Brown Orchestra, saving his own band expenses.

Shortly before show time, Brown’s assistant met with Burke, ensuring Burke had his throne, red carpet, robe and crown all ready to go. Burke confirmed he was ready to go. When it was time to go on, Burke was standing in the wings in full regalia as the introduction started – only the emcee introduced Brown instead.

“James came on with his cape, dancing on the carpet. That was funny, man,” Burke said. “He says, ‘Your job, just watch me. Watch the real king.’”

At one point in the show, Brown asked Burke to come onstage and place his crown on Brown’s head. Even though he never performed, the crowd chanted Burke’s name all night.

“(Brown) says ‘Solomon Burke cannot perform because he’s been decrowned,’” Burke said. “I never did find out what ‘decrowned’ meant. But it was, as I say, very amusing.”

It was also an easy way to pick up ten grand. After the show Burke told Brown he’d be willing to do the whole thing over again the next night for a discounted price of $8,000. It was a generous gesture for Burke, who while not exactly cheap, recognized – like Brown – the value of making a buck.

For example, he frequently traveled with a mini convenience store of sandwiches, orange juice, tomato juice and ice water. As the odometer turned on the tour bus, so increased the price of Burke’s goods. Otis Redding’s brother Rodgers Redding remembers one tour with Burke.

“(Burke) always carried stuff like ice water, cookies, candy, gum; even though he didn’t drink at all, you’d go into his room at the hotel and see all this, Courvoisier, different kinds of wine, the whole room would be full of booze. He’d have a hot plate, frying pan, flowers, roses, everything, just for his guests, whoever would come by.

“I remember one tour,” Redding continued, “Solomon was selling his ice water for ten cents, sandwiches for a dollar – everybody just laughed at him. By the time they got halfway there, he was selling that water for a dollar, sandwiches for $7.50!”

Jim Crow laws in the South had given Burke a captive marketplace, but also provided a generous audience in each town. Burke taught his band never to eat out after a gig – the little old ladies would always provide a nicer meal for free in their home than they could imagine at a restaurant. Sometimes they offered more.

“Them old ladies would come out with their biscuits and fresh-baked pies, they’d say ‘Here’s some fresh milk for you, son, just be sure and bring back my thermos.’ Fried chicken, barbecued ribs, ham hocks, collard greens, man it was great,” Burke said. “Then them old ladies would say, ‘Son, would you drive my granddaughter out to the main highway? Don’t you worry none, she can find her own way back.’”

Every facet of Burke’s personality converged when he played the Apollo Theater at the height of his popularity in the mid-‘60s. Playing the famed theater was a dream for most performers, but Burke, as always, wanted a little something extra. He had language included in his contract that gave him control of the theater’s concessions that night. Known for strolling the aisles at intermission and hawking wares, this is what the theater owners thought they were agreeing to. Burke, however, had other plans.

 

The king of Rock and Soul on his throne.

 

Bobby Schiffman, brother of Apollo owner Frank Schiffman, picked up the story in his other brother Jack Schiffman’s book “Uptown: The Story of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.”

“Solomon arrived … with a cooker on which he fried pork chops to sell the gang backstage, and a carton of candy,” Schiffman said. “I decided to humor him – until the truck pulled up.”

It seems Burke had recently bought into a chain of drugstores and had an abundance of popcorn. He had taken to hauling a trailer of the stuff around to his shows and passing it out. So when the Apollo deal was struck, Burke thought he had the perfect means of ridding himself of the overstocked kernels.

“I had about 10,000 stickers printed up to go on the boxes of popcorn saying, ‘Thank you for coming to the Apollo Theater from Solomon Burke, Atlantic Records Recording Artist. Your Box of Soul Popcorn,’” Burke told Guralnick.

After nearly giving the Schiffman family a collective heart attack, the two parties hastily renegotiated. In Burke’s version of the story, he agreed to take a loss on the rest of his food and cede concessions back to the theater provided he could still distribute the popcorn. In Bobby Schiffman’s version the family bought the popcorn off Burke for $50,000 provided he not sell anything else in the theater that night.

“That’s been my problem my whole life in entertainment: I utilize my educational background and maybe that makes me a little too smart for my britches,” Burke said. “They assumed my intelligence was limited, that my ability to supply a demand was limited. I wasn’t even thinking about singing that week. My biggest shot was: get rid of that popcorn. But it was the greatest publicity thing that I ever did.”

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 (Above: First Stephen Foster, then Ray Charles. Now John Legend and the Roots have “Hard Times.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A little more than three months after releasing one of the best albums of their 17-year career, The Roots are back, this time with John Legend.

The pairing is inspired. The Roots have long have a reputation as the best band in hip hop. For the past couple years they’ve proved their mettle to the mainstream as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Legend is clearly a great talent, but often gets overwhelmed by slick production and light-weight songwriting. These 10 reinterpretations of classic soul protest songs offer the perfect platform for him to shine.

Legend lives up to the opportunity, singing with grit and emotion only hinted at on his solo albums, and feeding off the Roots’ vibe. Opening cut “Hard Times,” a lost Curtis Mayfield classic written for Baby Huey, feeds off a horn line ricocheting off of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s drums and Captain Kirk Douglas’ bright guitar. Black Thought’s rap in the middle reinforces the track’s message and feel. This is music to spark both revolution and revelry.

“Wake Up Everybody” features a guest rhyme from Common that feels like a verse from a lost hymn. Legend’s duet with Melanie Fiona here captures the same mood as a classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell number. “Little Ghetto Boy” – bolstered by another Black Thought cameo – and the buoyant gospel reading of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” are other high points.

Unfortunately, the album can’t sustain these moments. Legend’s vocal shortcomings come to the foreground on “Wholy Holy.”Gaye’s voice soars effortlessly on the original, while Legend strains just to lift off. His over-singing on Bill Wither’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is accidentally exposed by Douglas’ understated, tasteful soloing.

Not all of the blame lies at Legend’s feet. Normally an impeccable arranger, there are some surprising issues with Thompson’s choices. Les McCann’s “Compared to What” swings and skips like a rock skimming the top of a lake. Thompson’s slower arrangement is leaden in comparison. His treatment of Lincoln Thompson’s (no relation) reggae song “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” hews closely to the original, but without the Jamaican patois it seems stiff and forced. The performance should have been reworked to emphasize what Legend could bring to the number.

“Wake Up” was inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and Arcade Fire’s song “Wake Up.” The original plan was record an EP, and truthfully Legend and the Roots should have stayed with that concept. The handful of strong cuts present would have made for an outstanding mid-player. As is, this is a solid album with plenty of outstanding moments, but ample opportunity to skip to the next cut. Or, better yet, seek out the originals.

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(Above: Billy Paul’s 1972 smash “Me and Mrs. Jones” is a quintessential slice of Philly soul.)

All Photos by Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There’s no shortage of history to be discovered and embraced in the City of Brotherly Love. Sadly, the many of Philadelphia’s musical landmarks have not been preserved as well as those associated with the Founding Fathers. Here is a photo essay from my brief trip to the city.

When Billie Holiday’s mother discovered she was pregnant in 1915, her parents exiled the unwed mother-to-be from their Baltimore home. Holiday’s mother settled in Philadelphia and gave birth in a housing development near what is now the theater district off Broad Street. The family returned to Baltimore shortly after Holiday was born.

The original building long destroyed, this marker is the only sign of Holiday’s neighborhood connection.

In 1952, John Coltrane used his GI Bill funds to purchase this three story brick house on 33rd Street. Coltrane’s house was on the right side of the building, now marked with a white door. The house looked to be in horrible shape, but no worse than the surrounding neighborhood. Several inches of trash lined the curb inside the street, broken windows and doors marked nearly every residence on the block. Located across the street from Fairmount Park, this was a rough part of town, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

A small red appendix on the street sign across the road is the only marker of John Coltrane’s former home in the area. The jazz giant obviously deserves better, but his old neighborhood has greater needs than gentrification.

This sculpture, located near Penn’s Landing, bears no obvious resemblance to any well-known saxophone players, but I thought it was fun.

With no signage or even address on the building, it’s very difficult to locate Sigma Sound Studios. Fortunately, someone was going into the building I suspected might have been home to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Sound of Phildelphia in the 1970s. David Bowie also recorded “Young Americans” behind these smokey windows.

Blessed with excellent timing, the employee I spotted entering the building graciously let me inside. Because they were being renovated, I couldn’t view the actual studios, but here’s the lobby of Sigma Sound Studios.

The Simgma lobby was decorated with awards from the golden age of Philly Soul. This platinum album celebrates Teddy Pendergrass’ 1978 album “Life is a Song Worth Singing.” Look for an exclusive interview with Sigma’s owner Durell Bottoms this fall in The Daily Record.

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(Above: The video for “Me and the Devil,” a track from his 2010 album “I’m New Here.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

WASHINGTON, DC – The “more info” tab on the Blues Alley Website informs the curious that Gil Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania because it was the alma mater of his hero Langston Hughes and that he has a Master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. Informative, but hardly enlightening.

From the twilight of the ‘60s until the early ‘80s, Heron was a groundbreaking artist, fusing poetry, jazz and soul into militant anti-establishment statements. The first chapter of his career extended from the high point of the Black power movement to its nadir, the height of the Reagan administration.

Heron has only released two studio albums since 1982, appearing more often as a sample in works by Public Enemy, PM Dawn and Kanye West, and making the news for his intermittent stays in prison. Heron responded to both occasions the way he handled everything during the next-to-last show of his summer residency at Blues Alley: with humor.

“The first thing you do when you find out you’ve been sampled,” Heron said “is go someplace private and make sure everything is in the right place. Then you want to want to play the song every once and a while make sure it’s still alright.”

After a shout-out to Common, who sampled the song “We Almost Lost Detroit” for his 2007 single “The People,” Heron proceeded to play the original number without the signature keyboard line that had been lifted. Few seemed to mind.

On prison, Heron poked at critics who said his sentences had made him sound unhappy on his new album “You might be unhappy when you go in, but you’re sure not when you come out.”

Dressed in a dark beret, oversized suit jacket and baggy, untucked white dress shirt, Heron split his time between standing behind the mic and sitting behind a Fender Rhodes. His voice was in fine form, gruff, but not as raw as on “I’m New Here,” his aforementioned new record. Halfway the nearly two-hour performance he was joined by a four-piece ensemble of keyboards, saxophone/flute, congas and harmonica.

Heron opened with 15 minutes of stand-up comedy, riffing on Black History month, cable news experts, meteorology (“I’ll tell you what a high-pressure front is: Three bothers walking toward you smoking a joint.”) and inventing your own “ology.” He joked about the volcano that stymied his – and many other’s – travel plans and the difficulty pronouncing its name.

“Does Norway have a brother who sells consonants?” Heron asked. “It seems like they put every vowel in a row then tell you ‘say that.’”

He was just as chatty when the songs began, opening “Winter in America” with a lengthy retelling of the African folk tale that inspired the metaphor. He recounted the history of jazz, from its brothel-parlor origins to big bands, before “Is it Jazz.”

“Is It Jazz” provided the first explosive moment of the night, igniting the previously silently respectful crowd with the succession of solos. Saxophone and flute player Carl Cornwell was the perfect foil for Heron’s verbose verses, punctuating each phrase with a sharp blast from his horn.

Despite the fierce and sometimes bleak politics of Heron’s lyrics, the night was relentlessly upbeat. “Detroit,” a dark recollection of a near nuclear meltdown in the Motor City flowed seamlessly into the hope-filled refrain of “Work For Peace.”

The night ended with “The Bottle,” one of Heron’s most popular songs that hit No. 15 on the R&B charts in 1974. Buoyed by a funky organ line, the lyrics paint a harrowing portrait of alcoholism in the inner city. It was odd when Heron gave a short designated driver PSA before the song, and even more puzzling when the band moved into a joyous chorus of “Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.” But for whatever reason, it worked and everyone in the club had smiles on their faces as they sang along.

As the crowd shuffled outside, the line for the 10 p.m. show snaked around the block. For the previous four nights, Heron had played two shows each evening, and the upcoming performance was the 10th and final of his stay at Blues Alley.

It was clear the set wouldn’t start on time, but the fans in line fed off the beaming faces of the emerging crowd and started to whoop and holler in anticipation. They would not be disappointed. Although there was no encore, and Heron omitted his two biggest numbers, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Johannesburg,” the evening felt more than complete.

A note on the venue: Blues Alley is literally tucked away in an alley off Wisconsin Street in the Georgetown district of D.C. The sun was bright outside when I entered, but it was dark as midnight inside. The only illumination came from small candles placed at the center of each circular, formally decorated table. With its old brick walls and thick ceiling timbers, it felt like walking into a colonial cellar. The tiny stage barely had enough room for the grand piano, let alone the emerging quintet. A waitress told me the venue was originally a colonial carriage house that was converted into a jazz club nearly 50 years ago.

Setlist: Stand-up set, Blue Collar, Winter in America, We Almost Lost Detroit > Work for Peace, Is It Jazz, Pieces of a Man, Three Miles Down, I’ll Take Care of You, The Bottle > Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.

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(Above: Maxwell performs “Fistful of Tears” in Dallas on the fall 2009 arena leg of the tour.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

If the local birth notices are unusually high late next February, we’ll know why. Sunday night at Starlight, neo-soul stars Maxwell and Jill Scott set a romantic mood with three hours of slow jams designed to linger long after the last note expired.

Shortly after sunset, a silhouette appeared on the screen behind the band. As the 10-piece band vamped, Maxwell suavely strolled out in a three-piece suit and sunglasses. Women erupted in spontaneous shrieks of delight as he set the mood early with “Sumthin’ Sumthin’.”

It was hardly the only time Maxwell would play to the fairer sex. Over the course of his 90- minute set he praised (“Fortunate,” “Ascension”), chastised (“Cold”), apologized (“Pretty Wings”) and seduced (pretty much every other song) the women in the audience. The set comprised two-thirds of Maxwell’s 2009 comeback album “BLACKsummer’snight,” and another half dozen hits and favorites for good measure.

The band rolled through the first three numbers without stopping. The come-hither strut of “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” easily rolled into “Get To Know Ya” and an arrangement based on James Brown’s “The Big Payback.” After a New Orleans jazz breakdown and trumpet solo, the ensemble took a deft turn into the Kool and the Gang-inspired “Cold,” one of the most upbeat kiss-off songs of all time.

Nearly every musician backing Maxwell has a foot in the worlds of jazz and hip hop. Many members have collaborated with rappers Mos Def, Jay-Z or Diddy. Pianist Robert Glasper was received a Grammy nomination for his 2009 album “Double Booked.” This jazz pedigree was on display all night, in the way Glasper or organist Travis Sayles would respond to a vocal phrase, or feed off the rhythm section.

Although the size of venues, staging and setlists have changed, Maxwell and the band have been touring together for nearly two years now. They’ve had plenty of time to sand out the rough spots, and Sunday’s night was an effortlessly paced ride. The roughest element was likely the most surprising: Maxwell’s voice.

The rasp in Maxwell’s throat was obvious from the first number; by the fifth he ‘fessed up to overdoing it the previous night in St. Louis and asking for the audience to help him on the high notes he couldn’t hit. He then bravely launched into the falsetto-sung “This Woman’s Work,” holding the mic stand over the crowd on the chorus. It was a generous gesture, but Maxwell would have been better off letting back-up singer Latina Webb play a greater role. Their duet on “Reunion” was one of the better moments of the night.

This was a small hurdle to overcome. Maxwell’s voice grew stronger with each number, to the point that he was able to handle the high parts in a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” with ease. The set ended with two guaranteed crowd-pleasers, “Fortunate” and “Ascension.” On the latter, the very full (but not sold out) house delivered the entire first verse a capella, much to Maxwell’s delight.

Jill Scott had the misfortune of taking the stage with the sun blazing through most of her 80-minute set, rendering most of her lighting and effects moot. It wasn’t a big loss, though, because like Maxwell the focus was on her voice and her band.

The 10-piece group sizzled through the keyboard propelled “It’s Love” that got most of the crowd up and dancing. If that number bounced with the energy of a passionate night on the town, then the next song, “Not Like Crazy,” gently embraced the delicate pleasure of waking up next to that person the following morning.

The two new numbers were studies in contrast. “I Love You” rode a bubbly ‘80s synth line, but wasn’t a radical departure in sound or subject. “Hear My Call” was a desperate, dead-of-night cry for help in the aftermath of a relationship. Scott performed the song backed only by piano. When it was over, she walked to the opposite end of the stage where her other keyboard player started one of her most affirming songs, “He Loves Me.”

Soon the band and the crowd were both fired up, but Scott stopped the show with her near-operatic vocal display that brought a richly deserved standing ovation. Scott made sure everyone stayed on their feet with the girl-power anthem “Hate On Me,” early hit “A Long Walk” and carpe diem hymn “Golden.”

It would have been a delight to have Scott and Maxwell share the stage for a number, but even apart the pair was a perfect complement. Both realized their roles as facilitators as much as entertainers.

“I’m here to support, engage and enthuse,” Maxwell said suggestively.

Scott was more direct: “This is an effort to get y’all some tonight.”

Jill Scott setlist: Gimme, The Real Thing, Insomnia, It’s Love, Not Like Crazy > The Way, Come See Me, Crown Royal, I Love You (new song), Cross My Mind, Hear My Call (new song), He Loves Me, Hate on Me, A Long Walk, Golden.

Maxwell setlist: Sumthin’ Sumthin’ > Get to Know Ya > Cold, Lifetime, Bad Habits, This Woman’s Work, Help Somebody, Fistful of Tears, Stop the World, Reunion, Till the Cops Come Knockin’, Don’t Say Goodnight (Isley Brothers cover) > Fortunate, Ascension. Encore: Pretty Wings.

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