Brenda Russell: 12 January 2014 - New York

For her New York homecoming, Brenda Russell delivered all the classics from a venerated songbook.

Brenda Russell
City: New York
Venue: Joe's Pub
Date: 2014-01-12
Photos by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Imagine this. You’re a singer-songwriter who’s just scored her first solo hit. Over the past few years, your songs have been recorded by a few notable acts, including Rufus & Chaka Khan and a duet by Motown artists Jermaine Jackson and Táta Vega. Many artists and executives in the music industry are familiar with your compositions but it’s your solo debut that’s garnering praise and putting your name in the Top 40. While sitting in your Sherman Oaks apartment, the telephone rings. “Brenda, this is Quincy.” In disbelief you answer “Quincy who?”

It’s not every day that Quincy Jones calls direct but, on an unforgettable day in 1979, that’s exactly what happened to Brenda Russell. “Way Back When”, an album track from the singer’s self-titled debut, prompted the legendary producer to call and tell her how much he liked the song. 35 years later, Russell recounted this and many other stories before an adoring audience at Joe’s Pub.

“I’m a Brooklyn girl,” Russell said after her opening number. Indeed, the singer’s New York appearance was a long-awaited homecoming for an artist who’s lived in Los Angeles most of her career. “I have many loved ones in the audience,” she said. That love was reciprocated from the very beginning of her twelve-song set. When Russell took the stage during “In the Thick of It”, the crowd’s response could have powered the sound board at Joe’s Pub. Listeners gleefully sang and swayed to one of Russell’s most beloved tracks from Brenda Russell (1979). Holding the audience rapt with every note, the singer entwined the lyrics with her signature “oo-we-oo-we-oo”’s.

For her next pair of songs, Russell toured through Paris Rain (2000), an album she co-produced with keyboardist Stephan Oberhoff. “Walkin’ in New York” was a valentine to the singer’s home city. An anthem for the kind of blissful afternoons that actually do exist in the heart of Gotham, the song’s laid back groove morphed into a stirring Latin rhythm, like day yielding to night. The poignancy of “Expect a Miracle” shone in a live setting, especially when the singer invited the audience to sing along. “It heals me to do it,” Russell confided.

The band shifted to a funkier gear for the set’s next tune. “One of the great things about being a songwriter is you have all these singers who record your songs,” Russell said. “This one was recorded by the late great Donna Summer.” Anyone who knows Russell’s oeuvre knows “Dinner with Gershwin”. She’d originally co-produced the track with Richard Perry for Summer’s All Systems Go (1987) album before releasing it on her own Kiss Me with the Wind (1990). The song's colorful wordplay traces Russell's daydreams about private rendezvous with Picasso, Amelia Earhart, Rembrandt, Mahalia Jackson, and the object of her heart’s desire. Bassist and Musical Director Bill Sharpe stepped center stage and laid down a bass solo that fully manifested the hints of funk in both versions by Russell and Summer.

Russell nestled the crowd-pleasing “Way Back When” in between two numbers that exhibited her work on the silver screen and the Broadway stage. When offered the opportunity to write a song for Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights (1999), she explained to the crowd, she wrote two songs because she wanted the gig. Ultimately, Levinson used both songs, including “Baby Eyes”. Russell accompanied herself on keys as lines like “With every step I’m falling more into this destiny called love” fell sumptuously from her lips. The song’s jazz overtones illustrated the songwriter’s versatility, while “Way Back When” showed how effortlessly she weaves sophisticated chord progressions into pop songs. It’s no wonder Quincy Jones called her.

In Russell’s career, it was only a matter of time before her songwriting talents found a home on the Great White Way. “I spent five years of my life co-writing The Color Purple (2005) for Broadway with my good friends Allee Willis and Stephen Bray,” she continued before singing one of the musical's many highlights, “Too Beautiful for Words”. Bathed in purple light, Russell’s heartfelt performance marked the first time she’d ever sung the song in front of a live audience.

From Broadway to Brazil, Brenda Russell helped New Yorkers forget about a cold winter's night on “Please Felipe” (pronounced “fell-EEP”), a song she co-wrote with Ivan Lins on Paris Rain. Russell’s band members were at their best, from James Harrah’s guitar solo to Jody Cortez’s drum combinations to a piano solo by Oberhoff that left the audience breathless. “Oh-way-oh / yah-yah”, one of many examples of Russell’s unique musical dialect, echoed through Joe’s Pub as the crowd sang the refrain back to the singer.

Following the fireworks of “Please Felipe”, Oberhoff brought the sizzle to a cool simmer. Darkness shrouded him and his piano solo. It was the perfect gateway to a song that needed no introduction. More than 25 years after it hit the Top 10, Russell’s “Piano in the Dark” still stops hearts. She cast a spell on an audience that knew every turn of the song’s haunting melody. Her phrasing remained faithful to the studio recording and was embellished by nuances born through the spontaneity of live performance.

Three years before “Piano in the Dark” brought Brenda Russell to the pop charts, another one of her songs made it onto the airwaves. “I got a phone call one Christmas when I had no money,” she recounted. The news on the other end of the line? “Luther Vandross is gonna do your song -- ‘If Only For One Night.’” Previously, Russell had recorded it on her 1979 debut while Roberta Flack had cut the song with Peabo Bryson in 1980. The songwriter described Vandross’ version as a “Christmas gift”. It became a staple of the late vocalist’s concerts after he released it on The Night I Fell In Love (1985). Russell and her band took their time with the tune, extending the vamp and exploring the full shape of the song’s emotional arc. “That’s for Luther,” she said above the crowd’s ardent applause.

Russell continued to mine her solo debut with “So Good, So Right”, her very first hit as a singer and songwriter. The song had rather humble beginnings. “I wrote it while washing the dishes,” she said. In concert, Russell and her band deftly ushered “So Good, So Right” through several different moods, from the breezy stroll of the studio version to a Caribbean-inspired interlude, to a fervent, gospel-charged coda. Completely remodeled, “So Good, So Right” evidenced how Russell can create fresh musical ideas from her most well-known songs. The last note triggered a standing ovation that continued through Russell’s return for an encore.

If any composition in Brenda Russell’s songbook holds the distinction as a standard, it’s “Get Here”, the title track to her 1988 album that sparked a new era of commercial and critical renown for the singer. Years after Oleta Adams’ hit version introduced the song to even more record buyers, “Get Here” has lost none of its appeal. Its sentiment of longing and unconditional love remains timeless. “Get Here” also symbolizes the special admiration Russell shares with her listeners. Earlier in the evening, Russell said “I got to come back to New York”. If her triumphant appearance at Joe’s Pub is any indication, no “hills and mountains” will ever come between Brenda Russell and her New York audience.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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