Photo credit: Matt Rogers
Mercury Lounge’s Funk Rising
In some parts of the world, funk has been known to be a cure-all. Combining the sorrow of the blues, the spirit of the church; the roll of rock, the swing of the big band; the power of the preacher, the rumble of a freight train. In other words: James Brown. Old Faithful? Whatever. Niagara Falls? Snore. Mount St. Helen’s? Only if it’s May 18th, 1980. If you need something to prepare you for the Godfather of Soul’s 70th birthday tour (Father Nature turned 70 on May 3rd), and you wanna experience Mamma Nature at her super baddest, then you need to check out a Sharon Jones show. With the blustery help of her steadfast Dap-Kings, this natural wonder of the world blew into downtown Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge, tossing a sold-out crowd of 300 like ingredients for a funky salad. For the two hours that bridged Saturday night and Sunday morning, it was Sharon’s Star Time.
Jones wasn’t the only cook in the kitchen, however. The sticky appetizer was provided by the Sugarman 3 & Co., whose heated brand of boogaloo soul food loosened people’s hips while whetting their appetite for the funk feast to follow. The mercury of the lounge climbed a few notches as the eight members of the Dap-Kings took the stage and began slapping more soul upon us via the Lounge’s excellent sound system. Sweat made a palpable appearance, lubricating the room-in-motion with the aroma of rhythm and perfume. It was time. When lead guitarist and MC Binky Griptite—always dapper in his turban and zoot suit—announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show, the super soul sister with that magnetic je ne sais quoi...” a movement rippled through the mass of people, as “110 lbs. of soul sister” sliced her way toward the backstage-less stage. With braids in her hair, gold on her fingers and red roses printed on her black dress, the five foot tall (with heels) ebony whirlwind backslid between horn players, grabbed the mic and let out a hefty “Hey!!!”
If you’ve seen her perform then you know Sharon Jones is not one to waste time when there’s work to be done and words to be sung. Hailing, like JB himself, from Augusta, Georgia, she quickly showed she is no funky diva wannabe. Her forceful soprano—more Vicki Anderson and Lyn Collins than Marva Whitney—launched into the fast-paced original, “Got a Thing on My Mind”, preaching the ethos of hard work and self-determination: “Now good things don’t come easy / Lord knows that I’ve tried / I’ve got what I got / ‘cause better folks have died.” Lazy men were the next targets. The horns drifted in over marching drums and steady bass line before ripping into a breakbeat that instantly forced people to jerk and contort like the extras in a Janet Jackson video. Which was appropriate, given that it was her brilliantly reinterpreted “What Have You Done for Me Lately” that the Dap-Kings tore apart, splattering the song’s inner funk across the club’s exposed brick oven walls. Whether out of fear or funk, the people’s sweat, like their dance moves, freely flowed.
As King Curtis would tell you, funk begins with the drummer; this James Brown certainly knows and so shows up with two. So, like legends Bernard Purdie and Clyde Stubblefield, Dap-King Homer Jenkins obliged with his best, casting layer upon syncopated layer, his snare a springboard and sparkplug for the rest of the Dap-King V8. Fernando Velez added Latin beats to the battery with magnificent conga work, his quick hands accenting the spaces like a younger Johnny Griggs. Hence, the batter was always thick for Bosco Mann to dip his bass ladle to the bottom and slather a groove for the guitars to mix and horns to decor ate. 6’6” TNT’s rhythm guitar stirred and wah-wahed texture while Binky Griptite’s lead added plucky Hendrix-behind-his-back solos. Above all this the horns blew heat with beauty and force, having free range to stab and twist, swirl and weave, call and respond. Dave Guy on trumpet fluttered notes over Neal Sugarman’s wailing tenor sax, while Otis Youngblood’s beefy baritone honked and hawed underneath.
To say this was music you could feel inside and out is no exaggeration. On the inside it grabbed you like a Gede spirit obsessed with meeting its funky pied piper, in the process shaking and jerking joints into unpredictable motion. And on the outside it hit you too, the heavy vibration standing hairs on end so that it felt like something invisible was rubbing your skin. Though as the music churned that friction around you and your neighbors, front, center and behind, maybe what you really felt was that new old dance called the Grind. And dance the 47-year-old Sharon Jones did, busting moves from yesteryear, moves she learned as a teenager soaking up Mr. Dynamite’s soul revue: the Jerk, the Mashed Potato, the Camel Walk, all three of which she demonstrated during the band’s blistering rendition of “There Was a Time”, a call to the past so furious with funk I swear I heard a generation gap explode.
With each ensuing song the heat continued to rise, Ms. Jones winding the room tighter and tighter around the One, until it felt certain either the building or band would have to give. And by revving up an already revved up cover of an Archie Bell and the Drells classic, Sharon Jones—braids flying and feet blurring—and her tireless Dap-Kings spun and spat Roosevelt Matthew’s “Tighten Up Tighter” until we were no more than a gooey mosh pit, Tasmanian Devils, whirling dervishes, tongues-speakers, ravers, pogo sticks, straphangers, headbangers, Lindy hoppers, all on the loose yet stuck together by that curious magical strength we call the Funk.