On her first album in eight years, Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette gets introspective and a little too comfortable. Such Pretty Forks in the Road hits the turnpike out of the gate, but takes an unfortunate detour, succumbing to its own ponderous weight before getting back on track for the final songs.
Written for her children, “Ablaze” belongs on any Morissette best-of playlist and features one of the best lyrics on the album: “My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze.” The piano-driven confessional “Reasons I Drink” could be a b-side from Fiona Apple’s stellar Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “Drink” is followed by “Diagnosis,” a frank look at depression and mental illness. These songs are saved from being pablum for a group therapy session by a raw, honest delivery and arrangements that heighten Morissette’s emotions.
Unfortunately, Forks then takes a wrong turn. The songs start to blend (bland) together and the lyrics grow treacly. “Losing the Plot, a song about insomnia, did a good job of putting this listener to sleep. “Sandbox Love” suggests something new with a shimmering guitar intro, but collapses into the same middle-of-the-road quicksand.
Closing numbers “Nemesis” and “Pedestal” end the album on a strong note, but anyone pining for the raw anger of her ‘90s breakthrough oughta know those days are nowhere to be found.
Paul McCartney – Flaming Pie
Paul McCartney went all-in after the Beatles Anthology pushed the Fab Four back into the spotlight. For his first post-Anthology album, McCartney enlisted Anthology producer Jeff Lynne and called on old pals Ringo Starr and George Martin.
The resulting album, Flaming Pie, hits that sweet spot where the performances shine without seeming over-labored and the songwriting has a relaxed feel without feeling tossed-off. The first time McCartney was able to sustain this zone throughout an entire album he delivered Band on the Run. While Flaming Pie isn’t as good as that album, it isn’t far off and may be as close to that apex as we will ever see again.
High points include the Ringo-assisted “Beautiful Night,” the R&B number “Souvenir” and single “The Song We Were Singing,” where McCartney confronts his legacy with the great lyric “I go back so far/I’m in front of me.” The acoustic “Little Willow” is a heartfelt ballad, while album-closing “Great Day” could have appeared on Ram.
If you have some spare change, consider buying the deluxe version. The extra LP finds McCartney laying down early versions of these songs accompanied only by his own guitar (or piano). Ringing phones, overhead airplanes, barking dogs and passing trains only add to the intimacy.
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain
George Clinton’s genre melting experiment never soared as high as it does on Maggot Brain, the third album from Funkadelic. Guitarist Eddie Hazel’s 10-minute solo on the title track may be the finest sound coaxed from six strings by any rock axeman not named Jimi Hendrix. “Can You Get to That” exists in a world where Crosby, Stills and Nash recorded with Norman Whitfield-era Temptations. “Hit It and Quit It” reimagines jazz organist Jimmy Smith as a member of a Bay-area jam band. “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” combines the spirit of Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder with a jazz trio.
And that’s just side one.
Any trepidation of musical whiplash reading these descriptions would be well-founded, but somehow everything hangs together. Clinton’s vision of putting heavy metal, gospel, folk, funk and any other LSD-inspired musical visions into the blender and seeing what pours out resulted in a collection that is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts. Each performance supports the other possibly because the only points of reference for this sound are the other songs on the album.
Funkadelic released many other superb albums in the 1970s – to say nothing of brother band Parliament’s output – but they never danced so freely on the edge of threatening to fall into the abyss while simultaneously grabbing anything with an arm’s length to raise them into the stratosphere.
Insurgence DC – Broken in the Theater of the Absurd (2019) Insurgence DC formed in the late ‘80s, but Broken in the Theater of the Absurd is just their third album, arriving 19 years after their previous release. The Washington D.C.-based punk trio has plenty to say about the corruption and incompetence they see around their hometown. Reading the lyrics printed across the back of the album, one could be forgiven for thinking she was looking at a Billy Bragg broadside. What keeps songs like “Poison Profits” and “Third Party Opinions” from being op-ed pity parties is a well-seasoned band that plays well off each other and knows how vary textures and arrangements to keep the music fresh. The aggressive songs are tempered by flourishes of avant noise (think Sonic Youth), post-punk moodiness and the gleeful ska of “Pick Pocket Pirates.” Fans of the Dischord label and anyone P.O.ed by the current political landscape will find a lot to like in the Theater of the Absurd.
Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969) I shudder to think how Miles Davis would have responded to the age of Twitter. Davis has been dead for nearly 30 years and audiences are still trying to catch up to what he was doing. The period when In a Silent Way came out demonstrates Davis’ restlessness and ambition. Just a year earlier, Davis disbanded his second quintet, one of the most incredible ensembles in music history. Three members of that quintet appear on In a Silent Way, but are used in completely different ways and surrounded by a host of other musicians. I’m having trouble coming up with a contemporary corollary for the sounds here. The last couple Davis quintet albums hinted at this direction, but In a Silent Way’s music still sounds surprising and fresh more than half a century later.
Neither rock, nor jazz (and not fusion), the closest touchstone to the music on In a Silent Way might be a psychedelic, improvised version of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp tried to accomplish both together and on their own in the mid 1970s. In fact, John McLaughlin’s electric guitar that opens the second side on “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time” sounds like what Daniel Lanois would play with Eno in the 1980s. Davis had long moved on by that point, of course. He jerked even more heads by releasing Bitches Brew, another masterpiece, the following year. The vast expanse of the universe is barely enough to contain all of Davis’ ideas. I’m glad he never had to face myopic imbeciles limited to 280 characters.
Alex Chilton – Songs from Robin Hood Lane (compilation) What is it about the Great American Songbook of the 1930s to ‘50s that compels repeated interpretations? Late in his recording career Alex Chilton drew from this well for two solid albums. The output bears absolutely no resemblance to the power pop that Chilton created with Big Star or the blue-eyed soul he brought to the Box Tops. While no one would confuse him with Grant Green, the albums do reveal Chilton has decent jazz guitar chops. Chilton’s phrasing and vocal delivery also depict him as someone completely at home in this style of music. The title of this collection holds the key to Chilton’s comfort with these jazz standards. Robin Hood Lane was the name of the suburban Memphis street where Chilton grew up hearing his mom play these classic songs endlessly. Come to this collection not expecting “September Gurls” or “Cry Like a Baby,” but with an open mind to hear another facet from a criminally neglected (by mainstream society and himself) artist.
Eddie Hazel – Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977) Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel left his stamp on many P-Funk classics (dig “Maggot Brain” as Exhibit A) but this was the only solo album released in his lifetime. Solo is a relative term here. Bassman Bootsy Collins co-wrote three of the songs here and keyboard legend Bernie Worrell is credited on two. Those two, plus the Brides of Funkenstein and a host of other P-Funk players all appear, but the album really does belong to Hazel. He transforms “California Dreamin’” into a slow jam and turns the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” into an acid-drenched guitar workout. The original songs fit well into the P-Funk songbook, but Hazel’s playing is remains prominent throughout. Although Hazel continued to sporadically appear on P-Funk releases after this album dropped, he was never as prominent as before. Thankfully back in print, Game is essential not only for P-Funk fans, but anyone who wondered what Jimi Hendrix or Ernie Isley might have sounded like fronting a funk band.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981) Nearly 40 years ago, when Hard Promises came out, MCA records wanted to hike the price to $9.98. Today, you can down the album on iTunes for $9.99. Inflation, huh? Petty and the boys refused to be the reason their label nicked fans an extra buck and Hard Promises eventually came out at the standard price of $8.98. Regardless of how much you paid, the music here is worth the investment. The songwriting on Hard Promises is every bit as good as Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s previous album, but doesn’t suffer from the same overexposure. The album starts with the classic “The Waiting” before leading into “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” the album’s second single. The remaining eight songs are all album cuts, but still beloved to hardcore Petty fans. Stevie Nicks duets on the gorgeous “Insider,” the Heartbreakers roar on “A Thing About You” and the album ends with another delicate ballad, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.” In between we get the slinky “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Mind,” which opens with a slide guitar part that sounds like a country version of the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
Heartbreakers bass player Ron Blair left after this album and didn’t return until 20 years later. Of the four original-lineup Heartbreakers albums, Hard Promises is easily my favorite. Heck, it might be my favorite Petty album pre-Full Moon Fever. Either way, all American rock fans need this album.
The Roots – Game Theory (2006) The Philadelphia natives that comprise The Roots are often labelled the best band in hip hop, an unsubtle jab at other groups that don’t play traditional instruments. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, I think it’s past time to drop the sobriquet and call them what they are: One of the best bands ever. Full stop. After striving (and compromising) for mainstream success on their previous album, The Roots went all-in on a darker, stripped down sound for Game Theory. Even though they weren’t aiming for the charts, I find myself humming the hooks in these songs for days afterward. Named after a mathematical model for decision making, Game Theory stares at big-picture topics like police brutality, drug addiction, poverty and dishonest media outlets. MC Black Thought’s isn’t afraid to drop heavy lyrics, but his delivery swings enough that you wind up tapping your foot as you nod your head. “Clock With No Hands” isn’t just a thought-provoking (no pun intended) look at addiction, but features a beautiful original (read: non-sampled) melody. In fact, one of the few samples on the album comes when Thom Yorke’s voice floats in and out of “Atonement.”
I saw The Roots perform with a full horn section on back-to-back nights of the Game Theory tour and they are among the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not in hip hop, but among everyone. Full stop.
Various Artists – Lows in the Mid-Sixties: Vol. 54: Kosmic City Part 2 (compilation) Between 1967 and 1973, Cavern Studios in eastern Kansas City, Mo., were a hotbed of recording activity. Local groups could venture into the subterranean limestone cave where the studio was located and, for the right amount of money, walk out with a record. The best of the rock sides were compiled on Numero’s exquisite collection Local Customs: Cavern Sounds, shown back on Day 12. Lows in the Mid-Sixties is a companion to that release, rounding up 14 covers of well-known hits by bands you’ve never heard. It is solid garage rock with a touch of psychedelia sprinkled across for good measure. One of my favorites is Dearly Beloved’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Dearly Beloved have clearly studied Van Morrison and Them’s cover, but removed the shimmering signature guitar line (later sampled by Beck on “Jack Ass”). The music here is far from essential and I’m not sure how interesting it might be to an audience beyond KC’s metropolitan area, but it proves the local music scene was humming around the Age of Aquarius.
I hope everyone had a good holiday weekend (if you’re into that sort of thing).
R.E.M. – Reveal (2001) I counted down the days to this album’s release after hearing the lead single, “Imitation of Life.” While I still like that song and a few other moments on Reveal, it was the most unsatisfying experience I’d had with an R.E.M. album until that point. Reveal gets off to a strong start with the first handful of songs, but then just kind of floats on its pillows of keyboards. Reveal also receives a strong demerit for failing to include “Fascinating,” one of the band’s best late-period ballads. It was reportedly cut because it sounded too much like the other material, but Reveal’s biggest problem is that it sounds too samey, and few of its songs are as memorable – or beautiful – as “Fascinating.” Hearing Reveal made me wonder if Up, the band’s first album after the departure of drummer Bill Berry, was a fluke. I don’t begrudge the band for pressing on as a trio, but the great moments were further apart.
Bootsy’s Rubber Band – Bootsy? Player of the Year (1978) George Clinton’s P-Funk was a well-oiled machine by the time bass man Bootsy Collins’ their album dropped. Your mileage with Bootsy? Player of the Year will depend on how much you like Clinton’s signature sound. “Bootsy? (What’s the Name of This Town” and “Roto-Rooter” are exactly the type of high-energy funk exercises you imagine them to be. (“Town” even features some funky flute.) “Hollywood Squares” opens with an appropriately theatrical fanfare, complete with tympani. The slow grind R&B workout “Very Yes” features uncredited but very accommodating female singers. The original funkateer is in prime form here.
Matthew Sweet – Wicked System of Things (2018) After a delightful trio of covers albums with Susanna Hoffs, Matthew Sweet finally pivoted back to his solo career. That return featured so many ideas and guests it was split across two albums, Tomorrow Forever and Tomorrow’s Daughter. The Tomorrow follow-up features Sweet stripping down and rocking out in a trio. Wicked System features some Sweet’s most aggressive playing in nearly a decade, but just because the riffs are harder doesn’t mean the album is lacking Sweet’s power pop chops. “Eternity Now” and “Backwards Upside Down” are great pop songs that could easily slot alongside his ‘90s work in a setlist. “It’s a Charade” is a deceptively sunny protest song, thanks to the cheery backing vocals on the chorus. Wicked System of Things snuck out as a Record Store Day release. I’m not sure it is on streaming platforms, but it is definitely worth seeking out if you are a fan of Sweet or power pop.
The Replacements – Hootenany (1983)
The Replacements – All Shook Down (1990) The Minneapolis college rock favorite’s second album is a beautiful mess, starting with the opening title track. “Hootenany” sounds like something some drunks would rip through in the basement while warming up. In other words, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the ‘Mats’ IDGAF ethos. “Run It,” the second song turns back to the more familiar sound of the band’s debut. Side one ends with “Mr. Whirly,” another drunken jam free-associating well-known riffs and lyrics. My favorite early ‘Mats song kicks off side two. “Within Your Reach” is the first glimpse of Paul Westerberg’s more sensitive and nuanced songwriting, which would blossom on the next two albums.
By the time of All Shook Down, Westerberg was positioning himself as a Serious Songwriter. While the compositions and performances are undoubtedly better, they also aren’t as much fun. That’s not to say it isn’t a good album. “Merry Go Round,” “Nobody” and “Somebody Take the Wheel” belong on any solid Replacements playlist. “Sadly Beautiful” is Westerberg at his aching, lonely best. All Shook Down ends with a song called “The Last,” a fitting title for what would be the end of the line for the band.
Beatles – Anthology 1 (1995) It’s hard to believe, but right now we are as far from the release of the Beatles Anthology series as that landmark look back was from the end of the Beatles. It’s also hard to believe that something that was seen as the ultimate treasure trove when it came out has become so inessential today. Be honest, when was the last time you listened to any of the Anthology collections? Prior to this, it had been years for me, especially for this first volume. Thanks to all the spoken word interludes Anthology 1 has an audio documentary feel the other collections lack. At times it feels like the only reason a performance is included on the album is because it was featured in the film. It’s great fun watching the Fab Four ham it up on Morcambe and Wise, but hearing only the audio is much less fun (and insightful). Hearing the Decca audition tape and the Quarrymen performances are historically interesting but not musically vital. In other words, I’m glad they’re here and that I have them, but I rarely reach for them.
Of course, the big draw for this set was the reunion track “Free As a Bird.” I liked it at the time and I still enjoy it today. Then again, I am also a big fan of George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as individual musicians, so I was already standing on third before the first pitch was thrown. Hearing these three interact musically on John Lennon’s recording is a delight, and frankly Anthology 1’s best moment. That’s not to say there aren’t other great songs here. The early versions of “One After 909” and hearing “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Eight Days a Week” are definite high points. But the band was finding their footing more than they were experimenting. That came in the later, superior, Anthologies.
(Above: Bootsy Collins takes the stage in Kansas City, Mo. for the first time in a generation.)
By Joel Francis The Kansas City Star
Bootsy Collins comes by the nickname Star Child honestly. He plays a light-up star-shaped bass, is famous for his star sunglasses and has a personality so radiant he could be nothing but a star.
But it has also been many moons since the R&B pioneer and right-hand-man in George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic empire has been to town. Before Collins took the stage Saturday at VooDoo Lounge, his MC announced the last time the band was in Kansas City it played a funk festival at Arrowhead Stadium. If true, that would have been in the late 1970s.
Collins made up for lost time, opening with a torrential 20-minute medley of both solo and P-Funk classics. Snippets of “Hollywood Squares,” “Mothership Connection” and “Dr. Funkenstein” had the entire house dancing. Although he would perform some complete numbers, most of the night was basically a medley of his best-known songs and choruses.
The two-hour set only slowed down once, for the ballad “I’d Rather Be With You.” Even then, Collins slipped a few bars of “What’s a Telephone Number” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” It’s incredible this hit was selected from all of Stevie Wonder’s considerable contributions to funk. It’s even more remarkable that Collins and his band made it work.
Several members of the 10-piece unit have played together for decades. Vocalist Mudbone Cooper and keyboard player Razor Sharp Johnson date to the original Rubber Band from the ’70s.
MC and drummer Kash Waddy goes back even further. He played with the Collins brothers in a band called the Pacemakers that was discovered by James Brown in the 1960s. Collins touched on those days during his monologue about working with Brown on the jam “Funk (Making Something out of Nothing).”
Collins was a little too generous in sharing the spotlight. He left the stage for tributes to friends Bobby Womack and Buddy Miles, a cover of Dee-Lite’s hit “Groove Is in the Heart,” on which he originally played bass, and, oddly, Parliament’s “Flashlight.” The performances were fine, but Collins was missed. His personality is huge, and just him being onstage pushed the energy up a couple notches.
Every time Collins left the stage he returned in a different outfit. The best was the mirror-ball tuxedo and top hat he wore to open the show, and the red-sequined Casper the Friendly Ghost gown he debuted last. During “Tear the Roof off the Sucker,” a couple of bandmates helped Collins remove the ghost gown to reveal a Chiefs jersey of Alex Smith underneath.
Dressed as if he were ready to return to Arrowhead, Collins jumped into the crowd and spent about 10 minutes hugging fans, shaking hands and posing for selfies as the band roared on.
When he finally returned to the stage, Collins announced he was auctioning the jersey to raise money for his Bootsy Collins Foundation. The jersey brought $600, and the winner got the privilege of closing down the vamp on “One Nation Under a Groove.”
Setlist: Bootsy? (What’s the Name of this Town) > PsychoticBumpSchool > Hollywood Squares > Mothership Connection > Dr. Funkenstein, Groove Is in the Heart, Don’t Take My Funk, Body Slam > Funk (Making Something out of Nothing), I’d Rather Be With You (including What’s a Telephone Number, I Just Called to Say I Love You), Them Changes, Flashlight, Stretchin’ Out (In a Rubber Band) > Funk (Making Something out of Nothing) > Tear the Roof off the Sucker > Touch Somebody > Aqua Boogie > One Nation (Under a Groove).
(Above: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars bust out the “Atomic Dog” at Crossroads KC on May 18, 2012.)
By Joel Francis The Kansas City Star
George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Star’s concerts at Crossroads KC have become a rite of spring. The troupe has performed there almost every year since the venue opened. It was clear from the first song, however, that something was different at Friday night’s concert.
Clad in a white suite and hat and shorn of his trademark rainbow dreadlocks, Clinton was dressed for business. While he was content in the past to shuffle in and out of his stable of nearly two dozen musicians, this time he claimed the stage on the first number and left no doubt who was in charge.Performing without longtime foil Gary “Diaper Man” Shider, who succumbed to cancer in 2010, Clinton sang with an urgency and intensity.
As if reestablishing his legacy, Clinton pulled the first two songs of the night from the first two Funkadelic albums, both released in 1970. The lyrics to the second number, “I Wanna Know If It’s Good To You” set the tone: “Look out, here I come/right back where I started from.” Later in the night Clinton dug unearthed “The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg,” which dated to his pre-funk doo-wop days in the Parliaments in the late 1960s.
Time has not been kind to Clinton’s voice. The musical pioneer’s raspy growl resembled Tom Waits doing James Brown, but it didn’t keep the 70-year-old from commanding the stage, jumping, shouting, directing and passing the mic to his son, granddaughter and grandson. During extended solos he took a seat by the drum kit, surveying the scene and snapping his fingers.
It took nearly 30 minutes before Clinton dropped the first big hit of the evening. A lengthy reading of “Flash Light” went straight into an equally extensive performance of “Freak of the Week,” best known today as the basis for De La Soul’s hit “Me, Myself and I.” Following “Freak,” Clinton turned the stage over to guitarist Michael Hampton for “Maggot Brain,” the “Free Brid” of funk solos.The All-Stars’ nearly annual appearances at Crossroads may have saturated the market. Despite perfect weather, the venue was only half full to start the weekend. The crowd was a diverse mix of races and ages, ranging from under-21 fans possibly seeing Clinton for the first time to longtime listeners who grew up on P-Funk.
The loose arrangements allowed plenty of room for improvisation, solos and sidetracks. “Freak” featured a detour into the standard “Sentimental Journey” while Clinton’s son and grandchildren each got a chance to showcase their rapping skills. At one point Clinton led the band into a bit of “Bustin’ Loose” in tribute to the recently deceased Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown.
Sometimes the arrangements were too free, though. Despite starting strong, the music meandered in the second half, particularly during “Up for the Downstroke” and “Aqua Boogie.” Just when the band seemed headed off the cliff, however, they caught second wind at the two-hour mark. “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” seemed to invigorate both the crowd and musicians. A fun romp through “Atomic Dog” found many women from the crowd invited onstage to dance with the band and ended the night.
(Above: The Lawrence band make breakups sound like fun on “Friend of a Friend.”)
By Joel Francis The Daily Record
The big names at the top of the bill will draw the most fans, but sometimes the best performances are from lesser-known acts early in the day. In the week leading up to the inaugural Kanrocksas music festival we’ll examine 10 overlooked acts. Below are five acts from Friday’s lineup. On Thursday we examine Saturday’s bands.
The Joy Formidable (Ad Astra stage, 2:50 – 3:30 p.m.)
The Joy Formidable have toured with the Editors and Passion Pit and turned to Muse and Glasvegas’ producer to help behind the boards for their studio debut. Singer Ritzy Bryan has a touch of Bjork in her delivery and the arrangements hint at what could happen if Jesus and Mary Chain were a pop band.
Fitz and the Tantrums (Main Stage, 2:50 – 3:30 p.m.)
This Los Angeles-buzz band play opposite the Joy Formidable, which is fitting because their music is at the other end of the spectrum as well. Working without a guitar, the group splits the difference between the Dap-tone sound and Maroon 5.
Fourth of July (Ink Unplugged stage, 6:15 – 6:45 p.m.)
This Lawrence quintet, comprised of two sets of siblings, combined the heartache and pain of “Blood on the Tracks”-era Bob Dylan with the relentlessly upbeat jangle of Camper Van Beethoven. A longtime mainstay of the Lawrence/KC music scene, their work deserves a wider audience.
Kid Cudi (Main Stage, 6:10 – 7 p.m.)
After bringing only a DJ to his Kansas City debut at the Midland theater last year, Kid Cudi has decided to bring a live band on the road with him this time out. Cudi’s studio work places the minimalist introspection of Kanye West’s “808s and Heartbreaks” in more lush, accessible surroundings. It should be interesting to watch Cudi try to translate his headphone music to a festival setting.
Major Lazer (Critical Mass tent, 8:15 – 9:05 p.m.)
DJs Diplo and Switch are best know for helping create the pastiche behind M.I.A.’s three albums. On their own the pair – who met through working with M.I.A. – create some swampy, dubbed-out dancehall reggae. Put Shaggy in a blender with the Bomb Squad, add George Clinton’s showmanship and you’re close.
(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.
For the third consecutive spring, George Clinton brought the Mothership Connection to Crossroads KC.
Unfortunately, Friday night’s two-and-a-half-hour set could never build momentum and was capsized by too many limp numbers. Although the repertoire hardly changed from previous years, the band’s setlist-free jams were a double-edged sword. Songs were either exciting or went nowhere.
Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars are less a band than a troupe. At one point there were six guitarist stretched across the front of the stage. Everyone was in costume. There’s axeman with the rainbow-colored Afro, angels out of a Victoria’s Secrets ad, Diaper Man Gary Shider, another male guitarist in a wedding dress and veil, several backup singers in Mardi Gras masks and Sir Nose, the acrobatic agitator in a white fur coat.
In the middle of it all was Clinton himself, clad in a black jacket and pants, sporting his trademark Crayola-sponsored headpiece and a necklace that looked like it was borrowed from Flava Flav.
While the depth and diversity of the ensemble is a great strength –- musicians can cycle on and off stage leaving fresh fingers and never-ending jams -– it is also an Achilles heel. For a band so tight, the performances tend to sprawl. And while his democracy is to be commended, Clinton gives each of his performers often unnecessary time in the spotlight. I’d much rather have heard “Bop Gun” than watched Roller Girl dance and sing the next-to-closing number.
The night got off to a solid start with perennial opener “Funkentelechy” and the instrumental “Cosmic Slop.” The evening’s high point came early. The 15-minute version of “Flashlight” featured a pair of wicked horn solos and the band demonstrating why Clinton’s songs hold up so well over a generation later.
“Freak of the Week” initially seemed like a great follow-up, but despite incorporating parts of “Sentimental Journey” and a scat-vocal interlude, the song was stuck in a slow pace that never really got off the ground.
This set the pattern. The dynamic “Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)” was part of an uber-medley with “Up For the Down Stroke” a sax solo and a tribute to James Brown. It was sandwiched by an unusually mellow “One Nation Under A Groove” and the turgid “Bounce 2 This,” which was little more than a bassline and repetition of its title.
At the start of the night, the two-thirds-full lawn was ready to dance and get down, but the crowd started thinning during “Maggot Brain,” the instrumental tour de force that appeared an hour into the set. By the end of “Bounce 2 This” the lawn was empty past the sound tent, save a few pockets of dedicated dancers.
The night ended on a high note with “Atomic Dog,” but by then it was too late. Too many stops and starts had killed the night’s groove. Fortunately, everyone will likely be back next spring to redeem themselves.
Brenda Holloway – “Every Little Bit Hurts,” Pop #11
Motown may have been “the sound of young America,” but this song was clearly aiming for an older audience. Lee Cobb’s writing is obviously influenced by the Burt Bacharach/Hal David team, but Brenda Holloway’s pristine, nuanced delivery elevates the song above imitator status. Her restraint is the key – Holloway trusts the melody and structure will carry the song further than her lungs. She was right. Although the style is closer to supper club than street party, Holloway and Cobb inspired a legion of artists to take it on.
The Spencer Davis Group, fronted by a young Steve Winwood, had a hit with it in 1965. A year later, the Small Faces tried their hand on it. Funkmaster George Clinton turned the song into a duet in 1972 when he performed it with Diane Brooks. Alicia Keys released a more faithful version on her 2006 live album “Unplugged.” Proving once again there were few musical stones they wouldn’t turn over, The Clash recorded a cover in the early ‘80s. Fellow English punkers The Jam also cut a version about the same time. — by Joel Francis
George Clinton’s show hasn’t changed much over the past several years, but that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to attract new fans.
Saturday night’s show at Crossroads KC marks the third time Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic have performed in Kansas City in the last four years, and each time the legion of hands branded with an “X” – signifying under 21 – is prevalent.
The forecast of a chilly evening – temperatures dipped into the 40s – and rain didn’t keep the lot behind Grinders from filling up over two-thirds with a crowd that cut through every demographic in the city.
The band opened with “Funkentelechy” followed by “Bop Gun.” Clinton wouldn’t emerge in his rainbow dreadlocked-glory for another half hour, but his crew of funksters were more than capable of keeping the music and spectacle rolling in his absence.
Parliament-Funkadelic shows may be closer to a three-ring circus than a traditional concert. Onstage at any moment are longtime band leader Garry “Diaper Man” Shider and backing singers dressed like roller girls and buffalo soldiers. Toss in characters like the Poo Poo Man, a pimp in zoot suit who lead the band through a James Brown tribute they’ve been doing since before Brown died, and Sir Nose, a dancer and agitator, and you’ve got a cross between Cecil B. DeMille’s cast of thousands and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
Of course having a first-class catalog doesn’t hurt either, and Clinton’s stable is definitely up to the task. The philosophy is simple: if you have something to add to the song, go out and play it. If not, get off the stage and make room for someone who does. The result can be up to six guitars wailing away on the metal instrumental “Maggot Brain” or horns and keyboards leading a charge through “Tear the Roof off the Sucker” and “Up for the Down Stroke.”
Though the predicted rain never appeared, when the wind picked up around the two-hour mark the crowd thinned so quickly it was like watching time-lapse video. The hearty souls who stuck around for the final hour were treated to a devastating medley of “Standing on the Verge of Gettin’ It On,” “Pumpin’ It Up” and a cover of Chuck Brown’s go-go classic “Bustin’ Loose.”
The evening ended with Clinton and nearly all of his two dozen musicians onstage for “Flashlight” and a ferocious “Atomic Dog” with several audience members dancing up alongside the group. There were so many people onstage it was hard to differentiate the band from the audience. But maybe that was the point. We were “One Nation Under A Groove.”