Social Distancing Spins – Day 25

By Joel Francis

I’m still lost in the catacombs, down in the groove.

Lou Reed – New Sensations (1984) Lou Reed released several endeavors that sound more intriguing in concept than execution, but New Sensations stands out in a deep catalog full of non-sequiturs: It is relentless optimistic both lyrically and musically. I have no idea what put Reed in such a good mood, but it is a delight to hear praise impulsive behavior on “Doing the Things that We Want To,” turning the Detours’ “Do You Love Me” sideways for “I Love You, Suzanne” and celebrating a compatriot on “My Friend George.” If this sounds slight, fear not. There’s nothing here as lightweight as “The Original Wrapper,” which appears on his next album, Mistrial. New Sensations it a strong conclusion to an incredible – and diverse – trilogy of albums that appeared in consecutive years and represent Reed’s strongest run of material outside of the Velvet Underground.

Coathangers – The Devil You Know (2019) When first playing this sixth release from the all-female Atlanta trio one might think there was a mix-up at the pressing plant. Opening cut “Bimbo” opens with a light, bouncy guitar and piano line and airy vocals. Then the distortion kicks in at the chorus and we realize how the sonic dichotomy supports the song’s lyrics about making assumptions about women. Very clever. “Stranger Danger” employs a similar trick as coquette-ish repetition of the song title plays against more defiant vocals in the verses before all hell breaks loose on the chorus. The song does a great job of capturing #metoo-era menace in under three minutes. “Stranger Danger” sets the table nicely for “Fuck the NRA,” a song as brash and straightforward as its title and the album’s best moment. Clocking in at just over half an hour, The Devil You Know makes it point and quickly departs.

Sam and Dave – Double Dynamite (1966) Soul music abounds with upbeat songs and combos, but I don’t know of any as relentlessly happy as Sam and Dave. You can even hear them smiling during serious ballads like “When Something is Wrong with My Baby (Something is Wrong with Me).” Double Dynamite is Memphis soul at its finest, with Booker T. and the MGs serving as the backing band and Isaac Hayes and David Porter providing songs. The first side of this album has several of the duo’s hits, including “Soothe Me,” “Said I Wasn’t Going to Tell Nobody,” and “You’ve Got Me Hummin’.” The second side is less-known but still great and features a version of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “I’m Your Puppet.”

Bob Dylan – Sidetracks (compilation) – This collection gathers all the non-album tracks released on box sets and hits collections over the years. The majority of the cuts come from the Biograph box set and are quite good, but I am partial to the songs from Greatest Hits, Volume II, which was a staple in my college dorm room. Dylanologists can rejoice than they no longer need skip through a half-dozen other anthologies for these hard-to-find tracks. Casual fans looking for the hits won’t find them here, but they will encounter a lot of great songs to send them scurrying deeper into the catalog. Non-albums singles like “Positively Fourth Street” and 1999’s Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” which will satisfy both audiences.

John Entwistle – Whistle Rymes (1972) – John Entwistle solo albums can be a dicey proposition. The majority of them are more miss than hit, I’m afraid. Thankfully, Whistle Rymes (sic), The Ox’s second solo album is a safe endeavor. That’s not to say it’s not for the faint-hearted. The liner notes, penned by Entwistle, is the beginning of a fairy tale about a girl named Boobity. So, yeah. (If this tale was ever completed elsewhere, I don’t want to know about it.) The closing song, “Nightmare (Please Wake Me Up)” is a glorious cacophony of horns, piano, violin and drums. The rest of the album is quite good. Anyone who heard The Who songs “Boris the Spider,” “Silas Stingy” or “Heaven and Hell” and thought they needed some more will be pleased with Whistle Rymes.

Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes from the Underground (1985) The jazz world lost a tremendous gift when Ellis Marsalias, patriarch of the great jazz family passed last week. I saw Marsalis at a small theater in Kansas City about a decade ago with a combo that included his son Jason on drums. Somehow, after the show, a neighbor who played saxophone and went with me had talked our way into joining the band – minus Jason – for drinks at the hotel across the street. I soaked in the conversation and experiences until Ellis arrived. He started telling stories about when Charlie Parker was in Jay McShann’s band. McShann, Ellis said, tried to get everyone to take his young horn player because he was so undependable. “You found him, you keep him!” Ellis remembered the other bandleaders telling McShann as we all laughed.

I mention all this here because I don’t have an Ellis Marsalis album and because there will be other opportunities to discuss the rest of the Marsalis family. I have no doubt somewhere in heaven the newly arrived pianist is sitting in on a heck of a jam session.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 1

By Joel Francis

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a lot of things away, but one thing it has provided me in abundance is plenty of extra time at home. I decided to make the most of my social distancing by doing a deep dive through my album collection. As the turntable spun, I was inspired to write about what I heard.

My intent is to provide brief snippets about each day’s albums. I understand that many of these classic recordings deserve lengthy posts on their own, but since we will be covering a lot of ground here I will try to remain brisk and on point. Ready? Let’s get to it.

Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980) Sabbath’s first half-dozen albums are rightly canonical. Heaven and Hell isn’t as groundbreaking but every bit as enjoyable as those classic platters. Sadly, the Ronnie James Dio era of Sabbath is mostly remembered by headbangers these days. This is the only Sabbath album I own, but I look forward to someday adding Mob Rules to the collection.

Hot Water Music – Light It Up (2017) – Playing the most recent album from the veteran Florida rock band was intended to wet my whistle for their concert at the RecordBar, scheduled just a few days away. Alas, like everything else on the horizon it was moved forward on the calendar until a hopefully calmer time. With a name swiped from Charles Bukowski and a sound like gasoline arguing with barbed wire the show is guaranteed to be a winner whenever it is held.

The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever (2010) This was my least-favorite Hold Steady album when it was released and I confess I haven’t played it as much as the albums that preceded and followed it. I thought the departure of multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay left too much of a hole in their sound, though the band sounded great when I saw them on this tour. Playing it now, I don’t think I gave Heaven is Whenever is enough credit at the time. It’s not a masterpiece on the scale of Boys and Girls in America and not as fierce as Teeth Dreams but there are some freaking fine moments, including “Our Whole Lives,” buried at the end of side two.

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984) What can be said about this landmark that hasn’t been said before? To be fair, this album was a request from my five-year-old son who loves “Dancing in the Dark” thanks to E Street Radio. “Dancing” is the next-to-last track, meaning he exposed to 10 other great tunes while waiting for his favorite number. Hopefully a few more of them will stick, although I’m not sure I want him singing “I’m on Fire” quite yet.

The Yawpers – American Man (2015) This Denver-based trio fits in well on Bloodshot’s roster of alt-country acts. Songwriter Nate Cook’s early 21st-centry examination of the U.S. of A. plays like a road trip. On songs like “9 to 5,” “Kiss It” and “Walter” they sound like Uncle Tupelo being chased through the Overlook Hotel by Jack Torrance.

The Highwomen – self-titled (2019) I toured the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville a few years ago. I was fascinated by the museum until the timeline reached the late 1980s. After Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle came on the scene, mainstream country and I quickly parted ways. The four songwriters in Highwomen are trying to reclaim popular country music on their own terms. Many, many great artists have tried to bend Music City to their tastes only to retreat exhausted. The best of them found Music Row sucking up to their pioneering sound only after it became popular. My guess is that the Highwomen will follow this same route, but they are so good you can’t rule out they will be the ones to finally break the stale, chauvinistic stockade.

(I say this and then notice that I’ve namedropped two male country stars in this piece without mentioning any of the female members of the Highwomen. Sigh. Please forgive me, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris.)

Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy! (2019) The Ivy League-educated neo-soul songstress focuses on the small to show us the large on her second album. Each of the thirteen tracks focus on an important black artists – Nikki Giovanni, Eartha Kitt, Jean-Michel Basquiat – explore what it means to be black in America today. What sounds like an academic thesis is actually a good dance album, thanks to a soundscape that slides between jazz, soul, hip hop, Afro-beat and even touches of EDM.

Jeff Tweedy – Together at Last (2017) Thanks to the film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Jeff Tweedy’s bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco barely made it into the mainstream before the monoculture collapsed and the entertainment world splintered into a million micro-genres and sects. The eleven songs performed here are stripped of all wonky production and distilled to voice and guitar. They are still amazing.

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon (1970) Joni Mitchell’s work in the 1970s is every bit as good as Neil Young’s and even better than Bob Dylan’s. This album finds Mitchell branching out by adding more instruments to the guitar-and-voice arrangements found on her first two albums. The jazz clarinet solo at the end of “For Free” gets me every time. Three of Mitchell’s biggest songs are tucked at the end of side two. “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock” set up “The Circle Game,” a look at mortality than never fails to leave me feeling deeply blue.

Ian Hunter – You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979) Ringo’s All-Starr Band isn’t the place for deep cuts, so I knew when Ian Hunter was listed as the guitar player for the 2001 tour I held a ticket for, I knew I was going to hear “Cleveland Rocks.” The only problem was the show was in St. Louis, so it didn’t really work. That’s Hunter’s catalog in a nutshell for me. All the right ingredients are there on paper and I get excited about hearing the albums when I read the reviews, but they never fully click with me. His releases are so plentiful in the used bins and priced so cheaply I keep giving them a shot hoping the next one will be The One.

Bear Hands – Fake Tunes (2019) Another play anticipating a performance that was cancelled. They descending keyboard part on “Blue Lips” reminds me of a good appropriation of Vampire Weekend’s first album (that’s a compliment). The overall vibe sends me to the same place as Beck’s “Guero” and “The Information” albums.

Thom Yorke – Susperia (2018) I’m not sure we needed a remake of Susperia, the 1977 Italian horror classic, but I’m glad it gave us Thom Yorke’s moody score. Trading his laptop for a piano, the Radiohead frontman provides 80 minutes of spare, melancholy instrumentals. The few vocal tracks make you wish there were more.

Yorke performed in Kansas City, Mo., less than two months after Susperia’s release, but ignored his latest album until the final song of the night. His performance of Unmade alone at the keyboard was the perfect benediction for a skittery night of electronic music.

Jack White and the Bricks – Live on the Garden Bowl Lanes: 1999 (2013)

The Go – Whatcha Doin’ (1999) These albums both arrived courtesy of the Third Man Records Vault and were recorded around the same time. Jack White was always a man of a million projects. When Meg was unavailable for a White Stripes show he grabbed some buddies – including future Raconteur Brendan Benson and Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell – for a set including a couple songs that would become Stripes staples, a pair of Bob Dylan covers and a song by ? and the Mysterians (not 96 Tears). The sound is a little rough but the performance is solid.

The debut album from The Go, Whatcha Doin’ is hefty slab of garage rock guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Jack White plays guitar and co-writes a couple songs, but this isn’t his show. He left the band shortly after the album came out, but there was no animosity. In 2003, The Go opened several shows for the White Stripes in the United Kingdom.

Syl Johnson – We Do It Together (compilation) This is the sixth platter in the amazing Complete Mythology box set released by the Numero Group in 2010.The material starts in 1970 and ends in 1977, omitting the time Johnson spent with Hi Records. Never lacking in self-confidence, Johnson frequently claimed he was every bit as good as James Brown and Al Green. Although he doesn’t have their notoriety, Johnson’s albums could easily slip into a DJ set of those soul masters.

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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Review: Bettye LaVette

(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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Black Joe Lewis plans new album

(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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Review: R. Kelly

(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”

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.”

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

(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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John Legend and the Roots – “Wake Up!”

 (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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