Uptown Friday Night
From the beginning, the expedition to Harlem to catch Soulive was all about a clash of cultures. It was not just the incongruity between the collapsing ruin of a former Romanesque Revival bank at Park Avenue & East 125th Street and a small, white, perfectly self-contained and pristine clapboard house in a lot on the opposite side of the street. Nor the disparity between the busy, Korean-owned soul cafeteria Manna’s and a swank, candlelit soiree in progress at the Studio Museum in Harlem behind its new, glassed-in, high-tech façade. The collision was most apparent in front of the world-famous Apollo Theatre. Harlem’s historic thoroughfare 125th Street has probably never before seen such an influx of (white) Downtown groovies and latter-day hippies as displayed on the sidewalk before the venerable old edifice (at least not since the late ‘60s, when the likes of Rod the Mod and other assorted intrepid souls would venture uptown to catch James Brown and Motown bills, perhaps).
The theme continued inside, amidst red velvet carpets, vintage collages of black entertainers from the distant past, and courteous young ushers in bowties with cornrows worthy of NBA scapegrace Allen Iverson. The staff was overly formal and extremely particular about the process of seating, their fastidious protocols unfamiliar to any denizens of such rooms below 100th Street as Irving, Hammerstein, the Knit and even the Beacon. The hall proper was tiny, nothing like the seemingly vast space full of alternately cheering or jeering black audiences shown on episodes of Showtime At. The grandeur of the teardrop chandelier high above and gilded tiers belied by the simply painted brick wall that served as backdrop onstage. As jam scene perennials Robert Walter’s 20th Congress opened the show, the band seemed isolated amidst their gear, the stark, brightly-lit stage giving their set an air of rehearsal prior to the proscenium masking itself in the dazzling smoke and mirrors employed to mount spectacle.
Like most opening acts, Walter and his rhythm-chasing confreres suffered from a sparsely-filled hall. And, despite the appearance of guest star Fred Wesley on trombone, they never quite caught fire until the end of their time. Wesley, who had not returned to the Apollo since performances with James Brown during the theatre’s previous sunset years in the early ‘70s, added a needed bit of spice on funk hits he contributed to: “House Party” (featuring good-natured call-and-response) and “Doin’ It To Death”. When the Congress were succeeded by a cold and slightly surly MC, the room was beginning to fill with tourheads and local jam band fans no doubt bewildered and visibly impatient to find themselves viewing hip-hop.
The true revelation of the evening was Dallas-based singer N’Dambi. With her full, deep, smoky voice reminiscent of Phyllis Hyman refracted through the prism of Black Lily, she should’ve carried the concert. However, she was mostly met with perplexed indifference by the bulk of the crowd. The us-and-them sense resurfaced in this stark gap of reactions to N’Dambi. When my Mississippi-bred friend effusively praised the singer, saying “Go on, girl . . . Do your thang!” etc., a Soulive fan down the row asked my friend if she knew her. Backed by the original trio version of Soulive, the “girl” killed marvelously complex songs—including “People”, “Lonely Woman/Eva’s Song” and the subtly explosive “Day Dreamer”—from her current double-disc release Tunin’ Up And Cosignin’ (Cheeky-I). The real surprise is the travesty that N’Dambi has been laboring behind her odious and glaringly less talented homegirl Erykah Badu for all these years as a backup singer. My Mississippian friend suggested that the nonplussed audience felt some inchoate guilt, were possibly threatened by the earthiness and power of N’Dambi, whereas they tended to find the handsome and appealing black maleness of a Neal Evans (Soulive’s organist) more palatable. If this is true, this crowd could never grasp the facts that a significant deterrent to the evolution of N’Dambi’s career is that she wears her Afro big, evocatively channels blues queens of yore, drawls charmingly and possesses ample hips, while La Badu has manipulated her fans with a fictitious Natural Gal pose composed of dreadlock weave, thin voice, Queen Afua gobbledygook, and a wardrobe of gelees and assorted African cloth virtually interchangeable with her forebear Diana Ross’ Mackie gowns. Sister N’Dambi does not belong behind anyone’s curtain. Someone needs to award her the scepter of national treasure (and commensurate acclaim and remuneration) post haste.
Issues of etiquette and diverse ways of communication were further highlighted, as audience members started to toss glow sticks from the balconies and later lit up. A guy who had set up his gear to tape was swiftly discouraged from it by the elderly majordomo. The consternation of the ushers who ran upstairs attempting to trace the source of the tossing and police seating, in addition to the palpable anger of the stray pockets of “real Negroes” present who kept rising to tap dancing white boys ahead and admonishing them to sit or move out of their line of vision, demonstrated just how wide the gulf between the races can be. There was even a pair of black women approaching middle age in the stage left balcony, inscrutable, mum stand-ins in for Henson’s Waldorf & Statler, looking down upon the proceedings with faint disapproval alleviated solely by their appreciation of Alan Evans’ powerhouse drumming. Likely those who came Uptown were unaware both of the Apollo’s rich history and the hardcore conservatism of many blackfolk.
Soulive, the former organ trio now a quartet, a predominantly black band featuring a white guitarist and adjunct sax player, attempted to redress the imbalances at work in the hall. As a vet of over fifteen years in second-wave hippiedom and the incipient jam nation, this critic was perhaps the only person of African descent present suitably attuned to the nuances of behavior and drama unfolding, while being sympathetic to the aims of the band’s devoted following. The crowd came Uptown heedlessly because that is the way of things on the scene. If your band comes to town, it’s not sufficient to merely see one gig when several are on offer. Acts such as Robert Walter’s and Soulive are known for improvisation, experimentation, changing set lists. You go each night just in case you might miss something, because a song could possibly be altered to reveal something you never witnessed the last twenty times you heard it. And, now augmented by the horn section, Soulive has evolved into an even more vital party starter. So the audience, virtually comatose for the majority of the evening, rushed the stage, flooded the aisles (causing the ushers to despair) and began to shake.
It was clear that Soulive are venerated by this audience partly because they give them license to get loose and get funky. The quartet’s success can be measured in terms of the broader influx of dance music forms and the Meters and George Clinton’s brands of funk as influences on a wide array of post-Phish jam bands such as the Disco Biscuits and Deep Banana Blackout. In the last days of Wetlands Preserve, it was not unusual for the same 16 year-old granola fan of, say, Leftover Salmon to show up for a Bernie Worrell & the Woo Warriors gig and dig it without having any true exposure to the black culture that spawned the Wizard of Woo. In this context, the music of Soulive, best experienced at the Apollo as one seamless wash of soul-jazz grooves, is viewed as merely another means to trip out and spin. The impassive yet bemused countenance of guitarist Eric Krasno seemed to ponder whether his followers were aware of the group’s chops and the proto-fusion traditions that inform their sound. Seminal records like Herbie Hancock’s landmark Headhunters obviously serve as the Rosetta Stone for this band now signed to premier jazz label Blue Note—so much so that tenor sax player Ryan Zoidis has the famous goli mask from that album’s front cover tattooed on his right forearm. And it takes a certain awareness to recognize the fadeout from Earth, Wind & Fire’s great “Can’t Hide Love” in the coda of Soulive’s best song (live and on disc) “Flurries” (N’Dambi also makes indelible use of “Can’t Hide Love” on her album).
On the whole, it seems the great challenge that lies ahead for Soulive and their friend/collaborator N’Dambi is to reach across the gap to listeners truly able to embrace their diversity.