Inside the Fabulous Funk of the Brand New Heavies

by Christian John Wikane

5 March 2008

Andrew Levy tells PopMatters how there's no blues in the Brand New Heavies' rhythm since N'Dea Davenport returned.

Andrew Levy and Simon Bartholomew know how to work a red feather boa better than even the sauciest burlesque performer. During one of the last dates on the Brand New Heavies’ “Big and Heavy Tour” with Macy Gray, the two strutted onto the stage at the Webster Hall in said attire, guitars in hand, ready to douse New York City with a shower of fabulous funk. Fronted by the vivacious N’Dea Davenport, who pumped her fists hard and high in a black halter-top during their opening number (“Never Stop”), The Brand New Heavies proved that nearly 20 years on, they’re as vital and vibrant as ever.

2006 was a special year for The Brand New Heavies. It marked the reunion of Davenport with founding members Levy (bass), Bartholomew (guitar), and Jan Kincaid (drums) on their critically acclaimed Get Used to It album. For listeners who’d long kept hits like “Stay This Way”, “Dream Come True”, and “Dream On Dreamer” in heavy rotation, the album was a long-awaited gift. After more than a year of touring around the world to support Get Used to It, the Brand New Heavies have reclaimed their place on the mantle of bands who deliver both a kaleidoscopic spectacle and musical muscle in equal doses.

The climbing basslines of Andrew Levy are one-fourth the defining sound of the Brand New Heavies. On the evening of their last US tour date, before the band headed to Japan and Indonesia where they maintain a loyal following, Levy reflected on the band’s reception in the US versus the UK. “We’re received as much more of a serious, viable act in America,” Levy says while stuck in traffic en route to the venue. “We did have our first hit here and then we got signed in the UK after our hit in America way back in the early ‘90s. We have serious fans over here. In England, we’re more viewed as a pop act. We have much more success in America, which is great. If I had to choose which country to have success in, it would be the States.”

Twenty years pass very quickly but it was nearly that long ago when “Never Stop” flew onto the US airwaves and into the Top 5 R&B charts on the wings of ebullient soul. By 1990, the core of the Brand New Heavies had already been playing together for a few years throughout London under the Brothers International moniker. Levy remembers, “Our first serious paid gig as a group was in ‘87. We went to school together so I guess you could say we started it when we met. It was just us having fun. I was studying a degree in Fine Arts and so was Simon, so it wasn’t really a serious career move to start a band. It just kind of happened.”

Delicious Vinyl President Michael Ross heard the Brand New Heavies via the UK-based Acid Jazz record label and obtained US release rights for the band’s eponymous debut. He contracted N’Dea Davenport to re-record key tracks with the band. The Brand New Heavies was released in 1991 with Davenport as a featured vocalist, followed in quick succession by Heavy Rhyme Experience (1992), an album-length fusion of funk, jazz, and hip-hop featuring the contributions of Q-Tip, the Pharcyde, and Gang Starr.

Davenport became a fully integrated member of the band on Brother Sister (1994), the album that catapulted the Brand New Heavies to worldwide attention. “Dream on Dreamer” landed in the middle of the pop charts while “Spend Some Time” and “Back to Love” garnered a generous amount of club play. A semi-obscure R&B band was suddenly in demand. “We exploded very quickly and were touring for two years. That’s why we didn’t do another album for such a long time,” Levy explains.

The sudden rush of success ultimately led to Davenport’s premature departure from the band. “Misunderstandings got in the way,” she sings on “Let’s Do It Again”, one of the stand out tracks on Get Used to It. I ask Levy how true the song is to why Davenport left. “There were lots of misunderstandings,” he agrees, echoing the song. “N’Dea had to move to the UK and we had two managers at the time, her manager and our manager. They didn’t always see eye to eye. We were just being kicked from post to post, touring from Japan to Europe to the US in the space of two weeks, traveling all over. It was just kind of a communication breakdown.” Davenport sought a solo career while Levy, Kincaid, and Bartholomew carried on with a revolving door of lead singers, the most successful being Siedah Garrett on the Shelter (1997) album.

Andrew Levy

Andrew Levy

The turnover of vocalists in the twelve-year period between Brother Sister and Get Used to It was the most challenging hurdle the band ever had to overcome in their entire history. “It was a rough patch. The last singer we were working with ... I don’t think she fully understood what she was getting involved in. We didn’t really get on as a band. Things got a bit shaky. Working with other singers is always difficult because they have to step into N’Dea’s shoes and they get nervous. I suppose that impacted on our last singer more than others.”

Despite her absence, Davenport never completely fell out of touch with her bandmates. She sang on “Finished What You Started” for the Trunk Funk (2000) compilation and, in recent years, wrote a few tracks with the band, foreshadowing the 2006 reunion. When Starbucks approached the Brand New Heavies about a new album, Davenport was available to step back into the groove. “It was like an oasis to see that N’Dea was available at that time,” Levy says. Get Used to It is infused with the same spunky soul that makes Brother Sister sound fresh more than a decade after its release. “We still have the same passion and energy,” Levy continues. “It’s like time hasn’t passed since N’Dea came back. We got back together and we thought, ‘Let’s go back to where we left off,’ just get into that mindset. There was a push to kind of touch on the Brother Sister album a little bit to re-familiarize people.” The musical consistency between the two eras is impressive. Nary an ounce of dissonance occurs if one plays “We’ve Got”, the first track on Get Used to It, immediately after “Daybreak”, the last track on Brother Sister.

At the risk of hyperbole, the songs on Get Used to It rank among the Brand New Heavies’ absolute best. “Sex God”, a sly slice of soul, came alive when Kincaid was delayed in his arrival to the studio one day. Davenport got behind the drums and Levy joined in on bass, creating a sexy and simmering marriage between the two instruments. “It all happened very quickly,” Levy remembers. “Jan came along and we were going to try and re-track everything with him drumming but it just didn’t sound the same so we went with it. That’s part of being in this band. Making the music, it just comes from nowhere. It might sound cliché but I always know that if I’m in a room with those three people something really magical happens.” The magic was especially palpable onstage at the Webster Hall when the band launched into “Sex God” followed by a particularly rousing rendition of “Right On”, where Davenport prowled the stage blowing a whistle, working the crowd into a frenzy.

One of the most bracing moments in the band’s concert repertoire and on the Get Used to It album is their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)”. The band owns the song, much in the way that they nearly eclipse Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis” or the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” with their own live versions. Levy is unabashedly fond of the Wonder tune, explaining, “It’s good to play because it’s cyclic and goes around and around. We just try and make it build, not go too hard in the beginning. I wish I wrote the bassline for ‘I Don’t Know Why’ but I think James Jamerson might have done that because [the song] was done by Stevie Wonder, then Michael Jackson. Then we did it!”

Veering towards their rock influences, the Brand New Heavies close Get Used to It with “I’ve Been Touched”, another one of the album’s numerous highlights. In a way, the tune provides the ellipses towards the next album. “We’re going to follow that road, follow that kind of sound, make it a bit tougher but completely funky as well,” Levy shares. Recording is set to take place at the end of 2007 with a third quarter release planned for 2008. There is no question about Davenport’s involvement. “I don’t think there will be another album without her,” Levy assures. “She’s a star. She just switches on every single night if there’s 100 people [or] if there’s 10,000 people there. It’s astounding. During the day, you don’t see her. She’s hibernating and saving all of her energy. She just explodes. It’s infectious. It infects the band, it infects the audience”.

Like the best performers, the Brand New Heavies leave their audiences craving more. Other acts could take a cue from their lack of pretense. To borrow a lyric from “Music”, they “put back the funk in music” without hiding behind a velvet rope like some of their contemporaries. They even invite their audience to an after-party following each show. “There’s an unwritten rule about our music,” Levy declares. “It has to make you smile.” To get a room full of jaded concert-going New Yorkers to smile is no easy task, but the Brand New Heavies do just that.

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