This past Saturday I picked up and watched the biopic Get On Up,staring Chadwick Boseman as The Godfather Of Soul himself. My comments on the film itself are something that’ll be dealt with at another time and place. Yet the striking recreations of James Brown’s iconic live performances stood out on another level. It is those performances that made James the icon he became. Everything he did in his music surrounded his dance moves. So much so he took the thinking of many jazz musicians a step further by recording his most powerful funk sides between gigs. That’s also what earned him the nickname,one of many,of The Hardest Working Man In Show Business.
No one in my family,including myself ever had the privilege of beholding James Brown in his onstage domain. Yet my blogging partner and game changing friend Henrique Hopkins did have that opportunity,and in JB’s twilight years as well. The reason I tended to enjoy hearing him repeat the story of how James was still kicking onstage well into his 70’s reminded me of my own significant experiences with live music. While the level of available performances in my own state varies extremely over time? It’s been my honor to see almost a dozen concerts in my lifetime. Note my parents have seen many many more-I simply declined the invitation due to lack of interest in the performing artist(s). These ten performances I’m talking about changed the way I viewed music. So let’s get it started!
The first adult concert that I remember attending was with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones at the University Of Maine in Orono,which has been a hotbed of the local music scene in my neck of the woods for decades. The two most striking members of the gypsy jazz/fusion group was the fluid bass player Victor Wooten and his brother who called himself Futureman. He played an instrument called a drumitar-a customized synthesizer guitar that allowed him to created many different levels of rhythm. There was a meet and greet I had with my mother and the other band members after the show. It was my very first time actually speaking with live musicians. The most exciting part of the concert was when Bela himself asked the audience to shout “Yee haw” during the opening bass line of their song “Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo”. A lot of fun for an 11 year old.
When I was 12 years old OJ Ekemode and his Nigerian Allstars,an Afro-pop band of some note came to the Grand theater in downtown Ellseworth. Thus far this was my first and only exposure to live world music. The colorful,tribal dances and clothes were more educational than anything I ever learned from a school book about Nigerian culture. The most exciting part was the multi part encore-which came off as a hyper percussive eternal dance. Only problem was that everyone had to remain seated as I recall. The best way to march to the beat of your own drummer is to be able to dance to it.
1996’s summer concert of Medeski,Martin & Wood came during a time when I was deeply exploring the funk music genre in the studio sense. My father introduced me to the talented jazz-funk trio and was exciting about going. He really enjoyed it. However at the time,I found their slow jam band music to be deadly dull compared to the exciting funk coming out of my CD player and turntable from Prince,George Clinton,Bootsy,Cameo and The Bar Kays. A small crowd of what my folks and I affectionately referred to as “Charlie Brown Dancers” up near the stage added a comic bent to it. Though the smell of reefer upfront was pretty thick. My first exposure to jam band culture basically.
A family vacation to the Montreal Jazz Festival of 1998 was exciting to me because we were supposed to go see the falsetto singer Jai,whose album Heaven was a family favorite at the time. My father got see a number of jazz acts that year. One night we all went to see a funk band called Rippopodamus. They performed a medley of funk classics including The Time’s “Jungle Love”. Not only did this coincide with my interest in the Minneapolis sound at the time,but was the first full on funk concert I ever had a chance to see.
The most thrilling concert experience I had before turning 21 was in the summer of 2000. My family and I were walking around downtown Portland Maine and came across a concert poster saying Dr.John was performing at the State Theater that night. So we decided to go see the show. It was a nice,intimate little club. And the Night Tripper strutted out to his piano playing a grooving remake of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” from his than current tribute to Duke called Duke Elegant. Hearing “In The Right Place” from the man himself up on the stage is an amazing experience for a great admirer of the funk such as myself.
My parents had already seen Billy Bang and his band,including the late sax player Frank Lowe,when they both convinced me to see him at another show he did in the town of Waterville in 2002. The show was a recreation of Bang’s album Vietnam: The Aftermath which had just come out. “Saigon Phunk” was the song that had me and my family bopping up and down to the jazz violinists music. There was a meet and greet with the band after the show,which led to an interesting encounter with stand in drummer Michael Carvin. In every way,it was quite a show however.
This concert coincided directly with my interest in Miles Davis. My father encouraged me to see Mister Fortune play in Waterville the autumn after seeing Billy Bang with the knowledge he played with Miles during the height of his fusion breakthrough in the mid 1970’s. Fortune played brilliantly. Yet there wasn’t much of a performance involved. More the type of jazz playing that really does lend itself better to audio than the visual element. Still seeing this man was an exciting experience for me in far later hindsight.
Who you see here are (right) bassist Roderick Pinkney and (left) keyboard player Nigel Hall. In 2004,they were key members of the first local funk band in Bangor Maine called Funkizon. The membership at the time also included guitarists Bill Mayo and Anthony Druin as well as drummer Spencer Nelson. How this local group were significant to my experience with live music was that I saw them nearly every weekend during their 2004 residency at the old Waterfront Bar & Grill on the Bangor waterfront.
I became very much acquainted with all the musicians personally thanks to my father introducing me to Nigel personally,and I’d known Roderick as a childhood chum. They played a mixture of James Brown inspired instrumental originals along with Nigel’s take on George Duke songs such as “Don’t Be Shy” and occasionally Rick James’ “Super Freak”. They also gave me my first experience with concert filming-allowing me to record their shows with my used VHS camcorder. My first and only direct involvement with a live funk band,or any band for that matter.
So far this is probably the most profound live experience I ever had a chance to have. So much so that I actually discussed it in detail on my old blog The Rhythmic Nucleus. She ran through the aisles of the auditorium before her opening act .Fun,went on to do some fancy JB style footwork,danced the Charleston with a group of extraterrestrial clad dancer/band members and sat on a stool playing her acoustic guitar in her tuxedo all at random within her 90 minute or so long set. It was like watching the last century of black American music come together through a magical musical world! This eclectic mix of James Brown,P-Funk and Prince in one talented young lady provided the most complete example of the funk I’ve had yet to see.
Reason for this even happening at all was a co-worker of my fathers not being able to attend the concert. And giving two tickets to him. He decided to bring me along. Seeing Dickey Betts and The Allman Brothers Band as the opening act was wonderful as well as some of the other acts. And BB’s band,including an amazing horn section,were loose as a goose funky blues. BB himself was clearly nearing the end of his game in terms of his performance ability. But just being able to see the legend and Lucille said all it needed to say.
While there are many live performances that came this way which I didn’t have a chance to see-in particular Ray Charles and Steely Dan? The ten live shows I saw here gave me a fairly well rounded viewpoint on the concert experiences. Honestly? My preferred method of receiving music is through listening to records,in whatever format they are in. At the same time? It’s still fun to imagine being onstage in front of an audience,a mic in front of you with your interested and offering your art live in person for the ears of many.