By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Before James Brown was black and proud and Marvin Gaye asked what’s going on, the Impressions were a winner who got people ready for the train a-comin’.
The Impressions message of racial harmony and black empowerment laid the roots for the black pride movement in soul and the native tongues/backpacker strain of hip hop today. The soul trio’s performance Saturday at the 40 Acres and a Mule Activity Campus in southeast Kansas City, Mo. capped the first day of the Juneteenth Family Festival, which celebrates the end of slavery in America.
Taking the stage in matching white suits, the Impressions quickly touched the sky with “Move On Up,” a song that established their leader and songwriter Curtis Mayfield as a solo artist. Although the set bounced between Impressions and Mayfield material, the songs were rooted in Mayfield’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s prime.
“Choice of Colors” felt like a hymn and was followed by the buoyant “We’re A Winner,” which got a healthy portion of the crowd of 300 clapping or on their feet. Impression Reggie Torian donned a black cape and white hat while the bass thumped the familiar melody to “Superfly.”
Torian had the unenviable job of taking Mayfield’s place. Although Mayfield, who died 10 years ago, will never be replaced, Torian did a good job capturing Mayfield’s rich falsetto on “I’m So Proud” and “I Loved and Lost.”
In an age of reunion bands and acts carrying on with only one original member, it would be easy to dismiss the Impressions as a Mayfield tribute act. Fortunately, the singers flanking Torian onstage are Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, the very people who sang, toured and recorded alongside Mayfield back in the day.
Backed by a seven-piece band that included a nearly obscured three-piece horn section, the Impressions were swinging through “Woman’s Got Soul” when a 40 Acres staff member came onstage. Confused, the band ended the song and announced that it was time for them to go. Ending with a rushed version of “It’s Alright,” they departed 40 minutes after taking the stage.
The Impressions’ set was likely cut short because Roy Ayers’ ran long. Ayers immediately preceded the Impressions, and while he made his name blurring the lines between jazz and funk in the early ‘70s, his 70 minute set concentrated on the slick R&B that made him a radio staple in the last half of the decade.
Backed by the local octet Ronnie Reed and the Millennium, Ayers took the stage halfway through a jam based on the JB’s “Pass the Peas” and quickly showed why he’s been the go-to guy for everyone from the Roots to Fela Kuti.
Ayers’ playing is at once funky and smooth. His approach to the vibraphone renders it a sonic mutant of drums, piano and guitar. His solos were so captivating that they rendered Millennium’s horn players irrelevant. As Ayers’ hammered away backed by the bare minimum of a groove, the suddenly extraneous horn section were relegated to synchronized dancing duty.
After an instrumental introduction, Ayers took over the mic and romped through four crowd pleasers. “Everybody Loves the Sun” drew many to their feet and Ayers got the rest involved by leading them through the lyrics. “Running Away” stayed in the same vein and featured a lengthy trumpet solo. Ayers was gracious in letting everyone in Millennium take long solos throughout the night.
Ayers ended his set walking through the crowd personally giving out free copies of his new live album. It seemed generous at the time, but ended up being an exchange of live music for recorded. Although the Impressions seemed ready to give more, no one was complaining either.
The Impressions – Move On Up; Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey); Choice of Colors; We’re A Winner; Superfly; I Loved and Lost; Gypsy Woman; I’m So Proud; Woman’s Got Soul; It’s Alright
Roy Ayers – Pass the Peas; Everybody Loves the Sunshine; Running Away; Don’t Stop the Feeling; Searching