with Big Shirley
House Of Blues, Orlando • 11.27.97
Funk. The gritty, down and dirty bastard child of the blues. Conceived in passion, delivered with soul – perpetrator of orgasmic rhythms and pulsing phat bass pulls and pops. Dangerous music, not to be ingested while under the influence of rigidity or stupefying squareness. If you’re a rectoid, tha’ funk is not for you. It’s about throw-down, it’s about oppression getting kicked in the nuts, it’s about talking to your partner in the language of Throb.
It’s many more things as well, defined by an ever-growing legacy of performers who have embraced the Funk as a lifestyle, not just an easily labeled and catalogued genre. This particular show at Da HOB promised to deliver both the old and the new school of Zee Funk, and motherfucker – it did. End O’ The Story.
Royal Funketeer Rick James, fresh out of his own private L-Seven (actually Folsom Prison), aimed to regain his status as meister of booty-slapping groove bait by unleashing a new album, Urban Rapsody, onto the world and supporting it with a tour. Local O-Town bad boys Big Shirley jumped in as opening act, and the stage was set for a wild Thanksgiving night of party-hearty mirth and earth-shaking, brain-numbing P-Funk.
The crowd that assembled outside was predominantly black, sharply dressed, and well-to-do, but once inside – a wider variety of concert goers was unfurled. Tiny white girls who sported class of ‘99 letterman’s jackets, rumpled grungy types, and big, strapping gents who could’ve been easily pro-football linemen. They were there to strap on the funk and get live. They wouldn’t wait long.
The patchwork curtains opened up at 8:30 p.m. to reveal Big Shirley laying it down thick. Lead singer Al Cheek loomed on stage in a purple double-breasted suit; a big man with a similarly big voice. As the groove kicked in, his silky baritone greeted the house with a booming “I hope y’all are ready to party tonight” and the crowd indicated that, by gum – they certainly were. Aided by Brett Crook’s sharp drum attacks, Cheek slid into “Funkism,” a nasty quick-step of a tune that immediately set the place on fire. Guitarist Bob Heina, who bears a striking resemblance to actor Lou Diamond Phillips, wrenched dizzying spirals of electric chuck-chuck out of his axe while new lead guitarist Roland Simmons laid down some trippy effects from the edge of the stage. As frontmen go, Cheek exuded supreme confidence as he punctuated growls and scats with freaky footwork.
Butch “Dolemite” Gonzales, sporting a fur pimp chapeau, stepped forward on the tunes “Revival” and “Burnin’ Mattress” to deliver great chomping bass lines that sizzled with the intensity of lead guitar riffs. Though the group’s style has been oft-compared to that of Parliament-Funkadelic, there was more of a James Brown sass that kept the groove tight and relentless, especially on sweat-dripping songs like “My City.” The horn section, comprised of saxophonist Chris Charles, trumpeteer Larry Merigalano, and trombone player Mr. Vannoy, punched forth sweet and strong throughout the show. The neatly arranged countermelodies of “Sure Fine Thing” showcased the band’s inventive style, and this tune simply kicked everyone in the head. Repeatedly. With Gunnar Beccacece filling out on percussion and backing vocals along the way, this set seemed to make folks forget about Rick James completely, especially stand-out numbers like the hypnotic “Head” and the band’s hit single “Step It On Up,” which provided plenty of boogie juice for the crowd.
Shortly after 10:30 p.m., the curtains parted again and a buzz, which may or may not have been aided by the cannabis cumulus that hung about, sent a wave through the audience. Drums kicked things off as each band member strolled on stage, one-at-a-time, adding layers of funkification to the mix. Bass, then guitar – keys, then horns – back-up singers graced the top of the cake with soothing, steady harmonies before a shadowy figure took center-stage. Clad in a long leather coat of vaguely military design, Rick James lit a cigarette, back still facing the crowd – signed the word “love” above his head, then threw down the stick and pulled up the coat, running his hands seductively over his grey-clad ass. Cued in by some hidden signal, the band tightened the groove into three quick blasts and Sir Rick turned around to start the shit.
Truthfully – he looked like hell, sort of pudgy with big cakes of make-up on his face. But jail-time is kind to no one, right? Twirling the microphone over his head and accenting well-placed drum hits with a suggestive twitch of his hips, James proceeded to strut about the stage to the beat of material from the new album. He seemed to strain for some of the notes in classics like “Bustin’ Out” and “Standing On The Top,” and busied himself between duties on bass guitar, rhythm guitar and keyboards. With his finger-licking, tongue-wagging microphone phallicism, anchored by melodramatic hand gestures, my impression of this legendary funk-meister was that of a cross between Prince and Michael Jackson, an unholy combo to be sure. After several missed mic stand twirls, the elder James finally keyed it down and got to the heart of things.
“I know it’s Thanksgiving, but we’re gonna work that turkey off of yo’ ass,” he joked before heading into a wicked version of “Cold Blooded.” This was the part of the show that he referred to as “foreplay,” much to the delight of the crowd. In fact, Sir Rick was at his best when working the audience up in call and response chants (“shit, goddamn, get off yo’ ass and jam,” being my personal favorite). The psycho-sexy “All Night Long” was given a royal treatment, featuring an extended mid-song dialogue about the interesting things that can be done with champagne and a nekked woman. The backing band played with nearly flawless precision – which is good, since everything but James’ bass playing sounded a little off. He fared better on the ballad “Ebony Eyes,” sharing the stage with his newest male back-up singer, who damn near outshone the boss. The quality of the show picked up when Joanne “JoJo” McDuffie, formerly of the Mary Jane Girls, was ushered out on stage to take the evening into what was presumably the “lovemaking” portion of the show. Giving thanks to all of the great black female singers who preceeded her, like Billie Holiday, Patti LaBelle, and Chaka Khan, this chocolate chanteuse exercised her bell-like voice during the mid-show stretch, performing reliable MJG songs like the snappy “In My House,” and engaged in a passionate duo with the returning James on the scorcher “Fire And Desire.” Perhaps the rest did him good, as he dipped into 1978’s Come Get It for the spacy “Dream Maker” before jiving it up on a splendid rendition of “Mary Jane,” which pulled out all the stops. Two false endings remade the tune into a Bob Marley-esque reggae strut and a remarkably campy, but entertaining reworking of the “1812 Overture,” which he conducted with a baton.
It was an odd mix of trademark nastiness and contrition throughout the evening, as James presented songs by citing record sales, and thanking the crowd for their support. “I’m really grateful to be here tonight, I don’t ever want to fuck up again,” he said at one point. He closed the evening with a stellar rendering of “Give It To Me Baby,” and encored with his penultimate hit “Superfreak,” which featured a parade of FOIN (not “fine,” but “FOIN”) young women doing the nasty with him on-stage.
Spotty as his part in the show may’ve been, Rick James proved that he’s still a hard-working showman who knows how to “turn the motherfucker out.” All in all, the collective sweat beaded on the faces of this standing room-only crowd was the true testament to a night of slap-nasty jams and turkey-burning funk. ◼