Found: One R&B Band
To this day, its the whole experience we are trying to get across. Its too much to fit on a CD. Its something you have to feel. You gotta smell the funk.
—Stokley, Mint Condition lead singer and drummer
Twenty years after they were formed (and several Gold records later) Mint Condition, the last—and perhaps the only—self-contained hit R&B band, finally gets to introduce themselves to the world, and in some cases, ironically, to their own loyal fans.
Live at the 9:30 Club aptly delivers the band’s beauty and blemishes. The latter comes primarily from the fact that R&B is not today a medium derived from instrumentality, built upon complex constructs and ironic arrangements. R&B radio, America’s primary portal to new music, embraces aural chewing gum made for repetitive consumption, where the flavor is long gone after the first go-around. Better bands whip up whole spicy meals—conversation pieces that blend biting flavors with mellow moments that cleanse the palate, leaving impressions that linger and last.
Mint Condition is one of those better bands, but their biggest hurdle has always been that they were a band with no outlet to be a band. They gave birth to hits that pleased the radio, but their more expansive, electric “WE ARE A BAND, DAMMIT” performances were relegated to half-minute interludes between cuts or buried at the end of each of their five studio albums. What’s more, unlike the rock and country genres, there is almost no American infrastructure for live Soul music. Its rare for such a band to roll into town and gig for hours simply because they can.
Thank god for DVD.
Live From the 9:30 Club proves that the band can cook, even as it displays what is unique about the Minneapolis-based band, not the least of which is the mere visual of six African-American men on stage playing live instruments damn well. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, this was far more common: audiences were accustomed to seeing funk and soul bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, Brothers Johnson, The Commodores, Sly & the Family Stone, The Isley Brothers, Kool and the Gang and L.T.D. But things changed in the ‘80s, and Lionel Ritchie left the Commodores, Jeffrey Osborne left L.T.D. and Prince proved that one man IS a band. A few hitmakers lingered—The Time, Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly, the S.O.S. Band, for example—and today that animal is all but extinct (respect due, however to pure rock bands like Jada Pinkett Smith’s Wicked Wisdom and Mos Def’s Black Jack Johnson).
The ironic disappointment of Live From the 9:30 Club lies in its first half. Given that this DVD affords Mint Condition an opportunity to strut their stuff, to give loyal fans some of the juice they have been longing for—and to surprise newcomers—the band is held back by its hits. They are simply to straightforward and make one yearn for the distracting quick shots of their music videos.
The truth of the matter is that as an artist in a major label system, the band’s job was to deliver hits. In their case that meant ballads, beautiful, meaningful, rich mid-tempo and slow tunes such as “What Kind of Man Would I Be” and “You Don’t Have to Hurt No More”, which, while pleasant, fail to show off their instrumental chops.
Remember, the bar is set high here. Earth, Wind and Fire managed to balance tender love tunes with spiritual fire, boasted an exemplary horn section, and tore the roof off the sucka on cuts like “Shining Star” and “Sun Goddess”. Sly and the Family Stone had “Dance to the Music”, and even Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly is best known for “Before I Let Go”, a relatively simply structured tuned whose infections baseline and “baaah bah bah” add-lib makes it a staple for DJs at clubs and weddings. Given the lack of demand these days for instrumentality in popular music, maybe those comparisons are unfair, but, hey, a band is a band.
The thing is, Mint Condition has those kinds of tune, such as the juiced up and humorous “I Wonder If She Likes Me” from Meant to Be Mint, and “Sometimes” from Definition of a Band, and “It’s Hard” from 2005’s Livin’ the Luxury Brown. Sadly, they are absent here at the 9:30 Club.
Thankfully, some kind of lightning strikes in the second half of the 80-minute DVD, after it performs its break out hit “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)”, when the band shakes off what seems like an obligation to showcase lead singer Stokley, and lets loose. Its as if they realized that, you know, people have already purchased the DVD and are a captive audience.
With track nine, Stokley puts down the mike, grabs some sticks and launches into a seven-minute drum set duel with lead drummer Terry Wesley, that leads into a roaring jazz interlude, syncopated by Stokley’s scats, creating a marriage of Weather Report funk and island style, led by Jeffrey Allen’s forceful soprano sax. A defining moment comes when the whole band is simply playing, a thumping back beat and pounding bassline opening the door to a three-guitar riff by Stokley, O’Dell and Rick Kinchen.
This is Mint Condition, finally. What follows is more head-nodding funk from Allen’s sax in “Funky Weekend” and “Call Me”.
That electric latter half of the performance makes the extra documentary segment on the DVD even more satisfying, if only to learn about the band’s Minneapolis background, how they met in high school and, of course, they classes they were late for because they had been up late making music in the studio.
Perhaps Mint Condition came too soon to the music business to truly be appreciated, trying to make their old school skills appreciated amidst a ‘90s scene that was deeply entrenched in the last days of New Jack Swing and the heyday of Puff Daddy’s shiny suit rap. But as any good band does, they developed a following that will find Live From the 9:30 Club to be a gift, a way to see the band in it glory, in a way not possible before.