Review: D’Angelo

(Above: D’Angelo’s signature slow jam “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” eventually ends up in church as the closing number in his June 9, 2015, concert at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The quaint concept of chronos means nothing to D’Angelo.

Twenty years after releasing his first album, the soul singer made his Kansas City debut at the Midland on Thursday night. He kept the crowd waiting more than an hour after an abbreviated opening set by Meg Mac’s backing band (the Australian singer was ill and unable to perform). Perfunctory encore breaks stretched more than five minutes.

D’Angelo made every moment worth the wait, and then some.

D'Angelo FYI al 061115 0321 Songs that span a few minutes on the album were stretched to more than double their length throughout the night as D’Angelo and his 10-piece band, The Vanguard, rode the groove and twisted every wrinkle out of the arrangements. The two-hour set leaned heavily on last year’s “Black Messiah” — his first release in 14 years.

A leading player in the mid-’90s neosoul movement, D’Angelo wears his influences proudly. “Sugah Daddy” started as one of the best Sly Stone songs D’Angelo never wrote (and better than several he did), until a flick of the wrist transformed it into a James Brown jam. The vamp between the first two songs of the night, “Ain’t That Easy” and “Betray My Heart,” sounded like a lost Parliament-Funkadelic track. References to Prince and Earth, Wind and Fire also were abundant.There wasn’t a bum note or dull moment in the set, but a few songs stand out. The powerful #blacklivesmatter anthem “The Charade” ended with D’Angelo and his two guitarists clustered together, taking solos as the song built in intensity.The pairing of “Left and Right” and “Chicken Grease” pushed the party to another level. With the two horn players and three backing vocalists lining the front of the stage, it felt like a New Orleans parade.D'Angelo FYI al 061115 0335Fans started heading toward the exits during the first encore set, when the clock tipped toward midnight. The ones who stayed were treated to an epic version of “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s biggest song. Unlike the infamous video, D’Angelo kept his clothes on, but ended the slow jam by dismissing his band members one by one, until he was alone behind the keyboard.

“Really Love” offered a chance for several band members to shine. Singer Kendra Foster stole the spotlight with ballet-influenced moves during the introduction. Bass player Pino Palladino’s nimble fingers provided a delicate counterpoint to Isaiah Starkey’s classical guitar. Later in the song, D’Angelo pulled Starkey out front for a great call-and-response solo, where scatting was transformed into fretwork.

Seconds after saying goodnight during “Chicken Grease,” D’Angelo called the saxophone player forward for a solo and disappeared, only to quickly return playing guitar. It would be another 20 minutes before he said goodnight and meant it. And everyone in the house was better for it.

Setlist: Ain’t That Easy; Betray My Heart; Spanish Joint; Really Love; The Charade; Brown Sugar; Sugah Daddy. Encore 1: Another Life / Back to the Future / Left and Right / Chicken Grease. Encore 2: Untitled (How Does It Feel).
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Review: Anthony Hamilton

(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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Temptations – “Cloud 9”

Cloud 9
Temptations – “Cloud 9,” Pop # 6, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

When the Temptations kicked David Ruffin out of the group in 1968, they cleaned house. Free of their troubled lead singer and his drug dependence and egocentric demands to rebill the quintet “David Ruffin and the Temptations,” founding member Otis Williams decided the psychedelic stylings of Sly and the Family Stone were the sound of the future. Although producer Norman Whitfield was reluctant to change the band’s sound with something “that ain’t nothing but a little passing fancy,” he eventually relented.

The wah guitar and flat cymbal sound that opens the song was completely unlike anything Motown had issued before. Instead of featuring one vocalist, the number finds all five Temptations passing the lead around. Williams and Whitfield’s early interest in Sly and the Family Stone is betrayed by the arrangement, which mirrors the San Francisco group’s No. 8 hit, “Dance to the Music.”

The lyrics also hit on what would become another touchstone of the post-Ruffin Temptations. The socially conscious themes of poverty, abuse and danger in the urban core would be repeated in the hits “Ball of Confusion,” “Run Away Child, Running Wild” and several other album tracks.

Williams has denied that the songs glorifies drugs as an escape to the world’s problems. For him, the key line is when Eddie Kendricks explains that cloud nine is “a world of love and harmony.”

“Cloud 9” brought Motown its first Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. The new category was just in its third year and had previously been awarded to Ramsey Lewis and Sam and Dave. The song paved the way for later psychedelic hits “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “Psychedelic Shack.” These songs placed the Temptations on the vanguard of soul music and helped clear the way for Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire and the funk movement of the 1970s.

“Cloud 9” was run through the Motown stable and covered by Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and Edwin Starr. Meshell Ndgeocello performed the song live in the excellent Funk Brothers tribute/documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” The song has also been covered by reggae artist Carl Dawkins, Latin musician Mongo Santamaria and Rod Stewart.

Review: Earth, Wind and Fire with Chicago

(Above: Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire team up to rock “25 or 4 to 6.” That song ended the duo’s three-hour performance at the Sprint Center on Sunday.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire took the stage Sunday night at the Sprint Center armed with enough musicians for a intramural football team and sufficient horns to start a Glenn Miller Orchestra franchise.

The 18-strong band opened with a tag-team of each other’s hits, opening appropriately with “Beginning” followed by “Never” and an extended “We Can Make It Happen.” The bands played like there was a penalty for letting the energy leg, barely pausing to take a breath between numbers.

With the crowd warmed up, Chicago departed leaving Earth, Wind and Fire to entertain on their own. The soul veterans were more than up to the task. They kicked off their hour-long set with “Boogie Wonderland,” which activated the hidden springs in each seat that forced everyone to their feet.

Serpentine Fire” and the Latin-influenced “Evil” made sure everyone kept moving until the cascade of slow jams: “That’s the Way of the World,” “After the Love is Gone” and a cover of Chicago’s “Wishing You Were Here.” That number got a smooth jazz make-over that featured original member Philip Bailey’s pillow-soft falsetto.

The spotlights turned on the energetic crowd for a sing-along through “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which found the band working the lip of the stage shaking hands with the crowd. After “Fantasy,” the stage went dark and three huge neon drums were wheeled to center stage. Armed with neon drumsticks and shirts with lights the ad hoc drum corp. created an impressive groove that segued into the set-ending “Let’s Groove.”

Chicago did themselves a favor by scheduling a 20-minute intermission before their set, but they still had a hard time matching EWF’s energy. “Saturday in the Park” got things off to a good start and their cover of “I Can’t Let Go” returned the favor EWF paid with “Wishing You Were Here.”

Unfortunately, the band slipped into soft rock mode after an spirited “Alive Again.” “Look Away” melted into “Hard Habit To Break,” “You’re the Inspiration,” “Just You and Me” and “Hold Me Now.” True, all the songs were hits and drew enthusiastic vocal support from the crowd, but putting them all together killed the pacing and energy.

After coaxing the audience back to their feet, Chicago’s 50-minute set closed with “Stronger Every Day.”
Despite just seven original members across the two groups, strong arrangements meant key departed musicians like Maurice White and Peter Cetera weren’t missed. With so much talent onstage, special effects took a back seat – the musicians were more than enough spectacle.

The stage featured a two-tiered riser with a drum kit on each side at the top which made the structure resemble twin pyramids. There was plenty of space out front for the artists to run around. None of them made better use of this space than EWF founding bass player Verdine White, who strutted in fringed bell-bottoms and appeared to be having the time of his life.

The upper deck of the Sprint Center was curtained off, leaving a cozy lower bowl that didn’t have many empty seats. The sound was good. Not clear enough to pick out each specific instrument, but each section was distinct. Drums thumped, guitars sizzled and horns punched.

This was the groups’ third tour together and it’s easy to see why both musicians and audiences keep coming back. While similar outings could turn into a battle of the bands, Chicago and EWF complement each other well. Both are known for soaring vocals and intricate horn lines and really are two sides of the same coin.

The night ended the same way it began, with both bands onstage trading hits. EWF’s “September” led into Chicago’s “Free,” which featured the sax players from both bands sparring over a White bassline that recalled the finer moments of Maceo Parker and Bootsy Collins in James Brown’s band.

The bands nailed the night shut with a run on “Sing A Song,” “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is,” “Shining Star” and “25 or 4 to 6” that didn’t leave any other option but to dance. Three hours after taking the stage together, the musicians celebrated each other like a sports team winning the pennant. In a way, they had.