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Cast From the Past

Artscape, July 22-24

Jefferson Jackson Steele
SWING TIME: Morris Day still rocks the sharp-dressed primp suit.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 7/27/2005

Artscape’s music is always built around past-their-prime R&B acts, and this year was no different. Still, it was a rude awakening to realize that acts that first broke through in the 1990s—Boyz II Men, Q-Tip, Shaggy—now qualify for Artscape’s over-the-hill headline slots.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with connecting to the past, and our amnesiac music industry could benefit from doing so more often. But aiming a show at fond memories is very different from connecting that past to an immediate, visceral reaction. Nostalgia can create genuine pleasure, but it does so by turning the musicians onstage into ghosts.

Morris Day and the Time played the nostalgia game to perfection on Friday’s opening night. Beneath the castle tower of Mount Royal Station, Day hot-stepped onto the stage in a bright blue suit with shiny white Stacy Adams shoes. Right behind him was his personal valet and comic foil, Jerome Benton, who held up a gold-framed mirror so Day could whip out a skinny black comb and touch up his ’do. The showmanship didn’t stop as the band jumped into a 20-minute medley of hits: “Wild and Loose,” “Fishnet,” “The Oak Tree,” and “Jerk Out.” Day and Benton slide-stepped through the same dance moves they did in 1984’s Purple Rain.

It was all great fun, but it was like watching Groundhog Day with seven musicians condemned to relive the same decade over and over again. Four of those musicians—Day, Benton, drummer Jellybean Johnson, and keyboardist Monte Moir—were from the classic lineup, but the defections—Jesse Johnson, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis—were significant. In 2005, the Time’s set list includes nothing newer than 1988. Day himself, reprising his signature line, asked the inescapable question: “What time is it?”

The entire festival felt trapped in the past. Inside the air-conditioned, padded-seat Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, contestants in the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition were more interested in imitating Lady Day (or her contemporaries such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald) than reinventing her. Maxi Priest’s dreadlocks reach his knees now, and his pop-reggae sounded similarly untouched. Even Vivian Green, who has a current hit with her Beyoncé imitation “Gotta Go Gotta Leave (Tired),” merely proved how bankrupt the R&B diva formula has become.

But there were a few acts willing to engage the past and make something new of it. Saturday afternoon on the big stage, Baltimore pianist Lafayette Gilchrist took on the early fusion sound of Herbie Hancock and transformed it into something contemporary and thrilling. Wearing his Kangol cap at a porkpie tilt, Gilchrist played nothing but his own recent compositions, knocking out one funky figure after another at his electric keyboard. His terrific five-man horn section—John Dierker, Greg Thompkins, Gabriel Ware, Freddie Dunn, and Mike Cerri—answered with a counterpart riff, blasting away as if they were the P-Funk Horns, with Gilchrist tossing in angular, oddball phrases as if Thelonious Monk had been hired for an OutKast date.

That night at the Festival Stage, at the top of the hill, the Drive-By Truckers took on another hoary tradition: the triple-guitar, Southern-rock sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Truckers even invited the comparisons by playing five songs from Southern Rock Opera, their Skynyrd concept album. But there was nothing nostalgic or ghostly about the Truckers’ show. Drawing most of their set list from their 2003-’04 masterpieces, Decoration Day and The Dirty South, the Alabama quintet demonstrated how an older sound can be shaken awake and become the vehicle for music very much of the moment.

When the big, bearish figure of Patterson Hood sang “Puttin’ People on the Moon” the guitars played by himself, Jason Isbell, and Mike Cooley roared like a NASCAR track, as triumphant as any Southern anthem. But Hood’s lyrics and vocal were full of loss—closed-down factories, corrupt politicians, a wife with cancer—unlike anything Skynyrd ever dared. That tension between triumph and loss was sharpened on songs such as Isbell’s “The Day John Henry Died,” Cooley’s “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” and Hood’s “Sink Hole,” as the band, egged on by a fist-pumping crowd, jacked up the guitars and poured dread into the vocals.

On the same stage Sunday, a different tradition was reawakened. The Grammy-nominated Spanish Harlem Orchestra played traditional Latin dance music with admirable skill and passion. They were immediately followed by Ozomatli, who proved how that tradition could be updated with doses of hip-hop, rock, funk, and even South Asian qawwali. Ozomatli’s lineup was not that different from the Spanish Harlem Orchestra—horns, congas, timbales, trap drums, bass, multiple singers—but the addition of a DJ, an MC, and an electric guitarist proved crucial.

Los Angeles’ Ozomatli played the same kind of cumbias, meringues, and salsas as their predecessors, but the turntable samples, rap breaks, guitar solos, and political lyrics dragged the Latin dance orchestra into the cutting-edge present. The band’s key instrumentalist, Ulises Bella, played the traditional requinto jarocho (a miniature, four-string guitar) for the lilting “Santiago,” but blasted out tenor-sax riffs on the funky “Saturday Night.” On “Street Signs,” dominated by the political raps of Jabu and Justin Porée, the tradition was represented by a warbling Latin vocal from Asdru Sierra, wearing a Spanish Harlem Orchestra T-shirt. On “Believe,” featuring DJ Spinobi’s sample of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwali, Sierra used a very similar warble, proving just how flexible that tradition can be.

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