[28 January 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
On 16 January, any New Yorkers not sitting in a Broadway theatre or at home watching the Jets versus the Patriots were treated to Prince at Madison Square Garden or Mother’s Finest at B.B. King’s. Prince, of course, was in the middle of his “Welcome 2 America” tour while the Atlanta-based Mother’s Finest were making their first New York City visit in well over two decades. The band filled B.B. King’s on 42nd Street with such a robust and voltaic dose of metal-funk-soul that even Prince could have been enticed to leave the MSG stage, walk ten blocks north, and crash the show to jam with Mother’s Finest on their memorable recasting of “Mickey’s Monkey”.
Indeed, Prince is indebted to bands like Mother’s Finest, who blazed a trail in the 1970s by merging the worlds of hard rock and funk. For those needing a primer, seek out “Fire”, a track from the band’s eponymous 1976 album on Epic and hear singers Joyce Kennedy and Glenn Murdock lead a call and response from the pulpit while guitarist Moses Mo and bassist Wyzard furiously shred their frets.
More than three decades later, those four original band members brought the exact same level of energy to the stage. (Newer members include drummer Dion and John Hayes on guitar.) Though “Fire” did not make the set list, nearly 20 other songs did and received the same kind of boundless, uncompromising approach that Mother’s Finest employed in their music 30-something years ago.
“Stand up and rock with me! Get up off your ass”, Joyce Kennedy shouted with a beguiling grin before launching into “Truth’ll Set You Free”, a timeless rocker that no less a funk-rock queen than Nona Hendryx intoned when Labelle covered the song on their Back to Now (2008) album. Mother’s Finest matched the ferocity of their original version off Another Mother Further (1978). The song segued into “Can’t Fight the Feeling”, a track from the Skip Scarborough-produced Mother Factor (1978). Kennedy punctuated the two-song medley with a heartfelt nod to the crowd, “I didn’t know y’all were still up in here.”
The band brought the audience up to date with some of their recent material, including the Glenn Murdock-led “Breakin’ Down the Wall” (from the 2010 film, Rockin’ the Wall). The band put gospel through the metal machine during the song’s surprise coda that set a mass of heads banging towards the stage. Kennedy followed suit and dueled with Hayes’ guitar on “Flat on My Back” where her full-bodied rasp scaled stratospheric heights as she clutched the microphone. Recorded for Meta-Funk ‘n Physical (2003), “Flat on My Back” reflected how the band’s signature marriage of funk and rock in the studio magnifies exponentially in a concert setting.
Mother’s Finest returned to the Scarborough era on “Love Changes” and “Give It Up”, a pair of songs that acknowledged the band’s bid for the R&B market when they were first released on Mother Factor in 1978. Onstage, the group added an edgier layer to the soul sway of the original recordings. A palpable anticipation from the audience greeted “Baby Love”, a song that holds the distinction of being the band’s highest-charting pop hit. However, it was hardly the only song that elicited thunderous applause. Shouts and screams bookended the one-two punch of “Piece of the Rock” and “Don’t Wanna Come Back”, which spotlighted the genius of Wyzard during his extended bass solo.
If any song demanded a return from Mother’s Finest to New York as soon as possible, it was the final song of the night. Tackling Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept A-Rollin’”—a song covered by the likes of The Yardbirds and Aerosmith—Mother’s Finest applied such a feverish intensity to the jump blues classic, that they probably melted whatever snow was remaining on 42nd St. Underneath a frozen flame of blonde hair, Kennedy nearly spoke in tongues as she spat out the syllables while the band’s sudden rhythm suspensions stoked the heat already generated by their 90-minute set. It was a fitting conclusion to an undeniably transfixing concert experience.