14 July 2002: BB King’s Blues Club & Grille New York
Flight to Amazonia (Slight Return)
Saturday in the park . . . you’d have thought it was the rest stop for Makeda, Queen of Sheba’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem, such was the devotional tumult emanating from the sea of sisters flooding into the Summerstage arena. Consider the scene set derived from lore out of the Kebra Negast’s long lost rock ‘n’ roll codicil.
Two Saturdays ago, deep within the heart of Gotham’s pastoral triumph designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, a “new classic soul” bill lured the entire tri-state (and no doubt beyond) black boho nation out in force. The talking drums had sho’nuff done their work, putting out the call to each and every natty dread soul boy and navel-pierced gélé gal so that they were hemmed in hip-to-hip, stylin’, profilin’, rapping into cell phones, scoring lemonade for the myriad impossibly photogenic happy-to-be-nappy children in tow, eyes and hearts full of expectancy at the chance to see their 21st Century African heroes and heroines in the flesh.
And that was just the press section, where attendees included everybody from author/veteran scenester Nelson George and Vibe magazine contributor dream hampton to poetess Jessica Care Moore and long MIA acid jazz soulstress N’Dea Davenport (in town to perform at an art opening featuring “Hottentot Venus” imagery at Urban Experience later in the week—- Saartjie Bartmann RIP back in your homeland, sister). Indeed, had any enterprising soul wished to wipe out a wide swathe of what Trey Ellis once dubbed the “New Black Aesthetic” cultural producers, they would have achieved an impressive tally, missing only Greg Tate who was so beyond cool that he was slated to attend the rival Africana extravaganza at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park starring Femi Kuti (and you should have seen the exodus of peeps timing their shit during Res’ closing set so as to hustle across the river for the heir apparent of Afro-beat).
The gender split for performers was 50/50, with erstwhile Toni Tony Toné majordomo Raphael Saadiq the most seasoned and respected artist among them. Nevertheless, the day seemed to be all about the sistas. Saadiq may have garnered the most applause and audience response—and newcomer Cody Chesnutt of Los Angeles via the ATL has been anointed the Second Coming by the alt-noir media set (most of whom fawned at him across the VIP barrier at stage left)—yet the sistagurls presented the greatest challenge to the status quo.
Chesnutt, featured in the latest issue of The Fader (which was being handed out like manna to the faithful on departure from the Park), is being cited as part of yet another emergent wave of renegade artists of African descent that kneel before the altars of Sly Stone, Prince, Hendrix, Mayfield, Marley, (newly rediscovered and lionized) Shuggie Otis & Wonderlove. Discussing Chesnutt in tandem with northern California’s Martin Luther and Seattle’s Ishmael Butler (former Digable Planets member “Butterfly” whose new project Cherrywine were slated to play S.O.B.‘s this week), the writer attempts to make sense of the personal and professional challenges these borderline musicians are always prone to. Major label interest has come knocking, yet, as the deplorable cases of Joi with Universal and Res, to a lesser extent, with MCA demonstrate, the rockbiz has long possessed a baffling inability to market and promote “black” artists that don’t conform to the templates of cornpone gutbucket rhythm & blues or whichever hot “urban” style du jour you prefer (New Jack Swing, anyone? since the news of one-time über-producer Teddy Riley’s bankruptcy is making the rounds).
The Summerstage organization is to be commended for scooping all the rooms in town and showing the prescience to schedule this kind of bill. It’s quite a coup that ought to be replicated in a metropolis as multiculti and urbane as Nueva Yawk but rarely is. What else could account for the staggering turnout? Hopefully, the Black Rock Coalition’s upcoming Town Hall forum on the “State of Black Progressive Music” (19 August) will address all the issues on the plate and go some distance in changing the tide of opportunities for well-regarded, seasoned local acts like Rhythm Republik (whose leader Kregg Ajamu and henchman Sharif Ali were getting down and happy off Joi’s funky fumes) and Tamar-Kali (a former singer in Joi’s crew with a slew of upcoming Gotham dates—see flamingyoni.com—including taking part in Brooklyn DJ/director James Spooner’s Bad Brains tribute series headlined by the first black punk band Pure Hell), as well as up-and-comers like bi-coastal spirit Chesnutt, whose forthcoming Headphone Masterpiece (check out codychesnutt.com will surely cause a clamor for his services all along the Eastern Seaboard this autumn.
The lack of appropriate apparatus to disseminate the diverse voices in the black music realm (for lack of a better term) was only too evident when Chesnutt, first up to bat, took the stage. The sort of blank stares that “regular” blackfolks usually give even more radical artists like Mark Anthony Thompson aka Chocolate Genius could certainly be seen throughout the crowd, as Chesnutt unfurled his first tune. There was a real sense that because rock continues to be viewed as the elite preserve of whiteboys, the majority of that crowd had no tools with which to process his image and his work. Chesnutt was armed with a fine band, good, promising songs, a flamboyant blue chapeau worthy of Sly (and moi, the milliner manqué) and a palpable penchant for Arthur Lee (apparently, on previous projects, he actually sang with a British accent) but largely met with indifference—which carried over to Joi’s performance, immediately following.
If Love’s Arthur Lee can absolutely be certified the King of all (male) Afrohippies, as my friend & colleague Barney Hoskyns’ Mojo biography of the man who spurred The Doors signing to Elektra posits him the precursor to Hendrix and Sly et al—the Love Man performs two dates at Bowery Ballroom in August, by the by—- then too-wild-for-Miles ‘70s funky diva Betty Davis is the undisputed Queen. Recent reissues of her classic uvre, including They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal (MPC Ltd, from London, of course), have made Sister Betty almost as popular amongst the critical establishment and vinyl cognoscenti as Shuggie Otis. It remains for her to be coaxed out of her Pittsburgh lair. Two things may realize that: an apparent guest starring role in “Ionman” Tate’s forthcoming Hendrix biography and Joi Gilliam-Gipp’s ongoing, heartening homage to her numero uno heroine in shadow, act and song.
The Star Kitty, as Joi is known, launched her portion of the show with her backing sisterfriends meowing (yes!) their patented, sex-dripping chant. Then the tempting triad segued into Betty’s fierce, unrepentant, enviably bold manifesto “If I’m In Luck I Just Might Get Picked Up”. Joi didn’t merely mimic La Davis’ delivery and vibe but dispensed an energy just as irrepressible which carried over to her own admonitory anthem “You’re A Whore”, the re-envisioning of Bootsy’s “Munchies For Your Love”, Chaka’s “I’m A Woman” and the Afro-Gregorian “Sunshine & The Rain” from the Pendulum Vibe debut. Joi, warning the puzzled crowd that they’d come to the “adult portion” of the concert and dedicating her woman-centered praise-songs to “all the top-shelf bitches out there” who take care of their bidness and jibes to covetous minxes who dare to poach on pimpstresses’ preserves, was in dizzying form, rocking a hot pink derby, polychrome knit gaiters and tantalizing Medusa braids that Cher will probably purloin for the remainder of her Farewell Tour. Eschewing the bulk of Star Kitty’s Revenge, much of Joi’s material was drawn from her “lost” Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome album and the annals of funk. She was clear-eyed with thought-guns cocked as she leveled the folks with vainglorious sincerity and ain’t no joke urgency. Hopefully, some of the befuddled sisters near me, observing her round-eyed, embarrassed and cowed across a circle of fear they refused to cross, ultimately took home some of the Star Kitty’s generously distributed life skills with them.
Saadiq had the arresting sousaphone (played by a brother from Nawlinze) and trio of suave-stepping, dulcet-toned male background singers. And thus the audience was in his pocket. Selections from his latest release, Instant Vintage, and back to TTT hits like syrupy slow jam “Anniversary”—- they were all groceries to his rabid crowd. While I have always found his voice weaker than his pop cunning and fluid conception, his stagecraft was the most successful. Not only was Saadiq attempting to collapse the ‘50s era of Jackie Wilson & Sam Cooke, the ‘70s heyday of Eddie Kendricks & Al Green with the retronuevo stylings of today’s “nu soul” patrol, but he and his organ-anchored big band appeared to want to usher in a completely fresh springtime for R&B music. Gospeldelic or otherwise, in their flowing white garments splashed with a band for the blues, Saadiq & Co looked penitent, devout, primed for renewal through imminent baptism in the sweat and funk of putting on the show.
Res may have proved the most frustrating performer on the bill. Even the surprise appearance of Talib Kweli rockin’ the mic did little to dispel the unstable flow of her act. Management ought to toss her out on the road for at least 300 days in the coming year, giving her a chance to hone her stagecraft. Despite being the novice in the lineup, Res, in certain ways, has had more opportunities than Joi and is definitely seen as more accessible and malleable. Quite: the same listeners seemingly threatened by Joi responded most favorably to Res, after Saadiq, and even sang along giddily with “They Say Vision”. She has got a lot to live up to. Don’t purposely misunderstand: I genuinely like Res; I even bought her record, no handouts from MCA over here. So speaking as a fan, willing to overlook scuttlebutt about singer-songwriter Santi White’s role in the making of the baby diva, I find the confused direction of How I Do and her live presentation problematic. As with my favorite black rock starlet of a generation ago, the sadly forgotten Claudia Lennear, there is the glaring mistake of trying to serve two masters, rock & soul, and try to second-guess two divergent audiences, urban and rock. Apparently, no one wants to identify with a sista rocker for two album sides or more except habitual small hamlets of Bohemia.
Sort of figures that as rock ‘n roll becomes a diminished cultural force (see teen pop’s chart tenacity and hip-hop’s exile in Nellyville) and white hit men are starting to watch its never-ceasing gravy train of ducats dry up (check out the past two years of industry news replete with tales of woe about Clear Channel’s monopolies, the perils of downloading “free” music, rapid-fire major label mergers, Jann Wenner’s last-ditch transformation of RS into a laddie mag, and the fact that even Boomers are now causing the concert business to take a downturn), younger black artists are finally coming out of the rockist closet in droves all across the land. Still, even decades after the proven track record of (men) from Arthurly to Lenny Kravitz, referred to by the BRC’s Darrell McNeill as the zeitgeist’s “glam-pop poster boy of black rock,” no welcome wagon awaits eager “black” rock yokels arriving in the Tombstone of Tinseltown with a fistful of future lyrical Americana and power chords. Just ask ex-Follow For Now leader & the ATL’s finest non-hop artist David Ryan Harris, a likely strong influence on Chesnutt, who moves to Los Angeles in September, despite going twelve rounds with Sylvia Rhone’s Elektra as part of his recent great Band Of Gypsys-style power trio, the Brand New Immortals, and finding himself dropped. Or Summerstage audience member and Joi associate, N’Dea Davenport, who found her post-Brand New Heavies work on V2 somehow did not dovetail with their priorities. As some of the last decade’s premier artists, they don’t deserve to wait twenty years hence for their back catalog to be sufficiently obscure such that turntablists of the next generations decide its worthy of being unearthed. Every last post-soul Negro, from the Neptunes to Cee-Lo to Mos Def is desirous of rock stardom these days, but let us not forget the pioneers who’ve truly labored on behalf of liberating “unorthodox” noir expression.
Rockbitches-in-training like Res exist even more squarely in a climate where it’s okay for Britney Spears to pimp the Neptunes’ spare funk and “she’s huge in Europa” dance artist Anastacia can channel Taylor Dayne attempting to bite Teena Marie but let India.Arie update the soul-folkie aesthetic and a talented woman like Dionne Farris drop a radio-ready, straight-up country-rock track (“I Know”) only to find that the mass audience has never heard of them even after being nominated for multiple Grammies or the local white male, Faces-fashioned, wannabe rock frontmen who work the till at Norman’s just don’t think you’re convincing enough as a rock babe. Thus it’s a mistake to saddle Res’ record and her show with watered-down R&B tracks and lightweight reggae. As with her prior Irving Plaza set, Res only truly came into her own on the rock-identified tracks: “Golden Boys”, “How I Do” & MTV2 staple “They Say Vision”. And though she gamely rapped out Run-DMC’s “King Of Rock”, she came across happiest and most on her game covering Hendrix’ “If 6 Was 9” and AC/DC’s “Back In Black”. The sole sad result amidst that fire was that when Res asked the crowd if they’d ever heard of our cherished & unholy Electric Gypsy Pimp-Dandy what she received were the disinterested blank stares of a whole nation of Negroes. Goddamit!!! Guess Saint Jimi needs to return from Atlantis full of cheer to play for these know-nothing knuckleheads on the streets of Harlem once more.
Etta, Queen of Queens in her sparkling red-hot dress, gilded ash ‘do and splendid corpulence, she has not let the ravages of the rockbiz knock her from the “top shelf”. She, the Muh’Dear of Misrule, spoke candidly about her detox from heroin to an overso(u)l(e)d, rapt audience at BB King’s in Times Square Sunday night. Nor is she prone to the cultural amnesia of generations of hip-hop Americans young enough to be her grandchildren or drummer (like son Danto). Miz James heartily reminisced about colleagues (adolescent crush Johnny “Guitar” Watson, rival blues-belter Janis Joplin) and musical genres (the despised disco which yielded her a great, hallucinatory hit about chasing highs, penned by Joplin accomplice Gabriel Mekler: “All The Way Down”) long gone with the lost highway. Her unapologetically salacious and lusty performance illuminated a path akin to a psychedelic beacon for Joi & N’Dea & Tamar-Kali & Res to follow should they withstand the vicissitudes of the industry to attain legend status. Accounts of four hundred people queued up on West Forty-Second outside the club earlier in the afternoon, praying for standing room tickets (which were at a premium) were hardly surprising as one watched the 64-year old grand dame of the blues leer and wink her way through “Come To Mama” and lay down the cold hard truth about a gal who would rather go blind than lose her man. When Miz James—- call her the Star Lioness (and so it follows that if she’s the blues end Makeda reincarnate, the pious Cody Chesnutt must be angling for the mantle of Anglophile Lion of Judah . . . hell, he dons the Ethiopian foulards never mind, I’ll save it. . . .)—- arrived at her baby-making standard, “At Last”, she complained of how Jaguar and her manager had profited from the usage of the song yet she herself had never received the prestige wheels of her dreams. Some star-struck concertgoer down front offered the keys to his Mercedes and watched them disappear down the blues queen’s bosom. Nary a protest was heard and everybody else was egging the singer on. They joyously rang out the well-internalized lyrics to she and Joplin and Erma Franklin’s “Piece Of My Heart”. And they stirred about the space in awe, romping and shouting in roadhouse vein, as James and her crack Roots Band closed with “Love And Happiness” which evolved into a haunting, mesmerizing version of “My Funny Valentine”. Even with her seated throughout in a black leather upholstered barber’s chair and assisted off stage by a comely young brother, the badass bitches of the hour ain’t got nothing on Etta James.
Cool poses abounded on and offstage at both venues. Yet there’s nothing cooler than a black woman on this earth who’s had to make herself up as she goes along, against all odds, and still comes out swinging and high-stepping toward the Cosmos (not to mention sartorially splendid). Sisters, the crazay Hoss salutes you.