“The music is like that , makes you see in the dark, cause the dark be you first. Understand. Can you see in your self? See the mission and the magic. The way and the cross. The hope and the double cross. The music is like that.”
-Amiri Baraka, “David Murray, Addenda to a Concert”
Started out this Saturday in Chicago – in a musical sense – after a Cubs game at the Empty Bottle for the Hoyle Brothers honky tonk happy hour: a packed room with $2.50 Shiner Bock on special and a dance instructor giving two step lessons. Exactly the scene you expect. Purely joyous, from a band that’s been doing this long enough they don’t have anything to prove. A drummer singing harmonies who knows the difference between a swing beat and a honky tonk stomp, a guitarist who can soar like a fiddle or snarl like a tenor sax, and a singer with the kind of smoothness that can put anything across.
Because their act is straight late-‘50s to early-‘70s country music, mostly covers but a smattering of originals in the style, it’s built for dancing and hinges on a sometimes-subconscious familiarity with the songs. But just as importantly, it counts on an audience not encyclopedically aware of that music, that’s kept off balance wondering “Is this an original? Is this a cover?” Then, before that confusion gets frustrating, out comes a classic everyone knows, like “Walking After Midnight” done by a lovely rockabillyish woman with a lilting voice, with the band backing her, or possibly the best live version of “One Woman Man” I’ve ever heard. The last ingredient to their success is slipping in a couple of off-genre covers but covers that work in that manner and aren’t just a shock novelty (Yonder Mountain String Band, pick up the red courtesy telephone), once “You Shook Me All Night Long”, last night Springsteen’s “Red Headed Woman”. The kind of thing that makes me glad to be in Chicago on a summer night and send everyone spilling out to dinner or another show or another bar or home dancing and grinning.
Then Ernest Dawkins’ Black Star Band at the Velvet Lounge. I’m ashamed to admit how long it had been since I was last in this south loop shrine to musics holy and ecstatic. With the passing of the great Fred Anderson I was determined to go see something there this weekend, show my support for the mission and drink a toast to the great man. Ernest Dawkins playing Friday and Saturday was even better. Friday night he led/conducted a seven piece band doing his new composition “Homage”, which, as he made clear in some introductory remarks, was both a tribute to the great Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach suite We Insist! Freedom Now Suite which came out in 1960 and begging the question, “Where have the last 50 years got us? What are the problems we’re facing now?” And if the Hoyle Brothers made me glad to be in Chicago, this made me glad to be alive.
If you’re doing something even tangentially related to Max Roach, you need a blistering-hot trumpeter and a fierce rhythm section, and this had both. The opening started with these tiny melodic cells from the guitarist Scott Hesse, bowed bass from the maestro Harrison Bankhead, some soft-focus (but never soft) cymbal work from Vincent Davis on drums, as Dee Alexander’s wordless vocals shot through the veins of everyone there, crying and snarling with this beautiful rage, banging on the walls of the cage of the heart. A little trumpet and bari sax drifting around the edges in the beginning.
It all shifted with three plucks from Bankhead, pulled strongly enough that you thought he was going to snap the strings off his bass, then resonating back with such a thunk you feel the floor move. Then those three notes again. Only then does Davis some in with a crash and this beautiful cacophony starts to bubble up, but with perfect architecture inside the whorls of sound, with Shaun Johnson (MVP of the night) peeling off these acid tones on his trumpet like it’s nothing, then stepping back into step with Hesse and Getsug to shadow Dee Alexander’s vocals. In this section the vocals served as a reminder that “Freedom isn’t free” (variations on that are the only completed lyrics in the piece), said fast, then slow, then amber slow, then fast again, but always with such pure, precise diction that every word hits you like a hot nail and a slap in the face. I wasn’t the only person with eyes closed, rocking back and forth in my seat during this, I promise.
Through the entire piece everyone got solo space to shine, including this perfectly bluesy section by Aaron Getsug on baritone and Dawkins himself flipping from Coleman Hawkins to John Gilmore to Pharaoh Sanders but always staying himself, with that juicy almost-shrill tone on tenor and alto, to Harrison Bankhead reminding us that he’s the pulse and Dee Alexander’s the soul. A perfect updating of the Roach/Lincoln piece to include what’s happened in jazz in the last 50 years but also shining light on how powerful that classic music is, how much it holds sway on our imagination and makes us all want to write a haiku or make a cave painting or write a letter to our congressman or go home and make love. All done by musicians who just looked over the material a few hours before. Given a couple more performances, this is is going to be classic, mark my words.
The cap on the night was a midnight Raphael Saadiq show at the Vibe – the old Crobar space uptown. Eight piece band backing him this time, two guitars, keys, bass, drums, tenor, trumpet and trombone, all in black suits with ties, bringing Saadiq out in classic style with an instrumental, his two background singers came out dancing also in black suits with ties, then Raphael took the stage resplendent in a cream suit with a brown tie already loosened. Opening with “Lay Your Head on My Pillow”, the first batch of the show went heavy on the Tony Toni Tone classics, then seamlessly mixing work off at least two of his solo records (I didn’t hear anything from the Ray Ray disc but then I didn’t ever spend as much time with that one, it wasn’t in heavy rotation for a year or more in my house the way Instant Vintage and The Way I See It were) and of course “Dance Tonight” from the Lucy Pearl project, with his female backing singer nailing the Dawn Robinson part and also the Joss Stone part on “Just One Kiss".
Saadiq is the kind of showman they don’t make any more: dancing well enough but not so well the show stops for the dancing, singing in this gorgeous falsetto but not dipping into showy melisma, playing to the audience but never pandering to us, walking to the side of the stage and getting us on his side, off-mic, like a cross between Marvin Gaye and Iggy Pop. Because he’d played Lollapalooza earlier in the day, this was (he mentioned on the stage) a more hardcore R&B show with some surprises for the true heads. Including bringing up his brother D’wayne Wiggins from Toni! Tony! Tone! on stage to join him on a couple of songs, and best of all bringing out one of the Spinners to join him on his cover of their classic “It’s a Shame”.
For a diverse portfolio of songs spanning 20+ years, everything felt like one continuum of soul, well played and with remarkable humor. A songwriter with total faith in his voice, a singer with total faith in his songs, an arranger and bandleader who knows he’s picked out exactly the right players to kick his ass and he’ll never need to worry about it, and a frontman who has so much confidence he knows nothing’s going to steal the spot light from him. He lets the background singers shine in a way that with any less of an artist, would totally upstage the main act, but they never do. You see his eyes light up when someone else on stage does something spectacular, he and the male backing singer grinning like “Oh my god” during the Spinners’ person’s falsetto (I didn’t catch the name, and its not like there weren’t 30 people in that group over the years). This is the kind of show where you don’t want to move to get a drink or go to the bathroom when he’s on stage, but you don’t stop moving the entire time.