Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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A Triumphant Tribute to Marley’s “Exodus”

Empress Unification

Empress Unification

Exodus is arguably Bob Marley’s best solo album, track-for-track. Every song on the album is a classic, and its worst song (“One Love”) is a certified anthem with enough populist appeal it was used by the Jamaican tourist board. But even more than a collection of strong songs, the tunes on Exodus play well together. Like the best albums from the vinyl era, Exodus has a song cycle: the opener, “Natural Mystic,” perfectly segues into “So Much Things to Say”; “Guiltiness” and “The Heathen” pair up like Siamese twins; “Exodus” and “Jamming” go together like salt fish and ackee; “Waiting in Vain” and “Turn Your Lights Down Low” present a potent 1-2 combination of lover’s rock; and the closing duo, “Three Little Birds” and “One Love,” both go big with sing-a-long hooks. The songwriting is Marley at his best, ranging from introspective lyrics to extroverted projections of joy, happiness, and feeling irie. While not as raw politically as some of Marley’s earlier material, Exodus more than makes up for it with heartfelt expressions of love and humanism – which in of itself could be considered a political statement.

Femi Andrades and the Broun Fellinis

Femi Andrades and the Broun Fellinis

Like the approximately 1800 other people who attended the three performances of Exodus commissioned by UnderCover Presents at the Independent this past weekend, Oakulture was curious to hear what Marley’s 1977 masterpiece would sound like reinterpreted by 10 local bands, encompassing a diverse stylistic range.

Silk-E

Silk-E

The result broadened the album beyond the reggae genre and affirmed the universality of Marley’s message. Simply put, great material is great material, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of the tunes on Exodus. The fact that none of the performances presented by-the-numbers tributes allowed the performers to put their own touches on the songs, and keep things loose and somewhat quirky. This was no slick, Vegas-style production, but more of a representative sampling of the Bay Area music community—a funky, ad hoc bunch of talented weirdos. The show – and a companion album recorded at Fantasy Studios – were curated by Guest Music Director Rupa Marya of Rupa and the April Fishes, a world beat/alt.reggae band from SF. Marya clearly wanted to take the proceedings down an eclectic road, without getting too far away from the message of Marley’s music.

Rupa and the April Fishes

Rupa and the April Fishes

The standouts, from Oakulture’s perspective anyway, just happened to be Oakland-identified artists who infused their tunes with large doses of Afrofuturism. If you’ve ever wanted to hear the avant-jazz outfit the Broun Fellinis, a group known for their improvisational jams, tackle conventional song structure and feature a female vocalist, this was your lucky night. Femi Andrades, of the Punk Funk Mob, sang like she was possessed by a jazzy duppy on “Natural Mystic,” as original Fellinis Kevin Carnes (drums) and David Boyce (saxophone) and bassist Kirk Peterson raised a wailing ruckus.

Boots Riley

Boots Riley

Another highlight was the surprise appearance of an unbilled Silk-E, who bum-rushed the stage along with the Coup’s Boots Riley and the Quartet San Francisco for a transcendent version of “Turn your Lights Down Low.” Sporting an enormous mane like a black lioness, Silk-E’s stage presence was just as big as her hair, to the point where Riley’s raps and the instrumental backing almost seemed like an afterthought.

Silk- E

Silk- E

A nice touch was Empress Unification’s version of “Exodus.” The all-female vocal group, backed by the Fyah Squad Band, offered a refreshing take on the album’s titular track, with soaring harmonies which emphasized gender balance (reggae tends to be a male-dominated genre), while their all-white outfits suggested spiritual purity. Marley’s back-up singers, the I-Threes, were always a huge part of his sound, and Empress Unification not only reminded listeners of that, but added two more voices to the mix.

Sean Hayes

Sean Hayes

Dressed in a multihued outfit which seemed to be a tribute to global solidarity, Marya herself tackled “The Heathen” along with the April Fishes. The song subtly supports resistance to Babylon without the overt  name-checking of “Rat Race” or the fiery militancy of “Slave Driver,” yet it’s one of Marley’s most sublimely subversive songs:

As a man sow so shall he reap

And I know that talk is cheap

But the hotter the battle

Is the sweeter the victory

Empress Unification

Empress Unification

Sierra Leone Refugees All-Stars member Black Nature’s version of “Jamming” was probably the closest to traditional reggae out of all the performers, while vocal trio T Sisters put a doo wop spin on “Three Little Birds” and Brass Band Mission closed out the show with a NOLA-style second line rendition of “One Love.”  Other participants included alt. Latin band Shake Your Peace (“So Much Things to Say”), singer-songwriter Sean Hayes (“Waiting in Vain”) , and prog-reggae outfit FogDub (“Guiltiness”).

Shake Your Peace

Shake Your Peace

Overall, Exodus added another feather to UnderCover Presents’ cap. By offering musicians an opportunity to play some of their favorite tunes from one of their favorite albums, the show also helped expose those artists to audiences who may not otherwise have heard of them, and built community in the process. But perhaps the biggest testament to the production’s viability was the fact that the energy in the room started out high and just kept rising throughout.  With SF’s music scene facing displacement of artists and the closing of venues, UnderCover Presents’ principal Lyz Luke isn’t just booking shows, she’s affirming cultural resiliency through creative placemaking. That’s something to appreciate in an age when the bus to Babylon is chartered by Google.

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Sly Stone Tribute Show Takes the Musical Legend’s Legacy Higher

This is what 175 local musicians onstage at the same time looks like

This is what 175 local musicians onstage at the same time looks like

Reportedly, some 175 local musicians were involved in UnderCover Presents’ production of “Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand,” a tribute to the Bay Area band’s classic album, released in 1969. Seemingly all of them were on the Fox Theater’s spacious stage simultaneously during Saturday night’s encore of “Thank You Fallettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin.” Having already tacked all nine proper songs on the Stand album, not to mention sneaking in snippets of other Family Stone hits, it seemed only natural to end what had been a monumental undertaking with yet another of Sly’s eternal  classics.

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The wide expanse of humanity onstage resembled nothing so much as the personification of “Everyday People,” Stand’s biggest hit, and one which had been performed earlier in the evening by rock & roll act Tumbleweed Wanderers. From left to right, the stage was awash in colorful, vibrant folks of several ethnicities singing, dancing, and playing instruments together – MLK’s dream rendered in stage lights for all to see. At the time of its release, “Everyday People” was a manifesto of social acceptance, an urging for “different strokes for different folks.” Despite our cultural, political, and ideological differences, Stone pleaded, “We got to live together.” The statement remains as true now as it was then.

Marcus Shelby (l.) and Tiffany Austin (r.)

Marcus Shelby (l.) and Tiffany Austin (r.)

More triumphant celebration than nostalgic remembrance, “Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand” at once upheld and advanced Stone’s musical vision. Groundbreaking at the time, there was nothing on the musical landscape quite like Stand, an album which infused the revolutionary activism of the late 60s into a wide-reaching blend of progressive musical influences, mixing R&B, soul, funk, psychedelic rock, and pop in a way even Motown had yet to imagine – it would be years before Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye incorporated social consciousness into their music. Saturday’s show added jazz, orchestral strings, vocal choirs, salsa, and hip-hop to an already-bubbling musical melting pot. The result was pure alchemy.

Freddie Stone

Freddie Stone

Unfortunately, Oakulture arrived one-third of the way in, after the Awesome Orchestra Collective, Ensemble Mik Nawooj, and Zakiya Harris featuring Elephantine had already warmed up the large-capacity venue with “Stand,” “Don’t Call Me N*gger, Whitey,” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” respectively.

Bayonics

Bayonics

The vibe was indeed elevated as we made our way through the art deco doors into the auditorium hall.  Fortunately, the Marcus Shelby Quintet didn’t let the energy dip. Their take on “Somebody’s Watching You” gave the song an entirely different musical context while reaffirming the power of the lyrics (which are ostensibly about the conscious mind, but could just as easily be about the surveillance state). The MSQ wrapped the song in resonant jazz chordings which allowed the melodies space to breathe freely, highlighted by some impressive vocal work by Tiffany Austin. Bayonics’ version of “Sing a Simple Song” expanded the tune’s territory into funky salsa grooves, overlaid with rap verses, and the aforementioned Tumbleweed Wanderers offered a slightly folksy version of the ubiquitous “Everyday People.”

Con Brio's Ziek McCarter

Con Brio’s Ziek McCarter

Earlier, many former members of the Family Stone, including bassist Rustee Allen, saxophonist Jerry Martini, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, drummer Greg Errico, and guitarist Freddie Stone, were introduced, to wide applause. But something was missing: Sly himself, who reportedly appeared on a panel at an afternoon convention held in the Fox’s Den bar. A press release hinted that he might take the stage, but that never happened.

Ricky Vincent

Ricky Vincent

All was not lost, however, as Con Brio frontman Ziek McCarter’s serpentine-like dance moves and channeling of kundalini energy put the sex in “A Sex Supreme,” a reimagining of Stand’s lengthiest number, “Sex Machine.”

Bassist Allen, who replaced Larry Graham in the Family Stone, joined Will Magid & Everyday People for “My Brain (Zig-Zag)”—an instrumental recorded around the same time as Stand which appeared on 20007’s reissue version of the album—which segued into “If You Want Me to Stay” (from 1973’s Fresh, which featured Allen on bass). The Jazz Mafia & Crossroads Collective closed out the set with “You Can Make It If You Try,” another of Stone’s message-laden tracks, which mixed horns and strings with vocals from Trance Thompson, Nataly Michelle Wright and Tym Brown.

Rustee Allen

Rustee Allen

All of which led up to the all-hands-on-deck encore, which riffed on what  for many is the quintessential Stone song (just as Stand is probably his best album track-for-track), and one evidently  infused with deep personal meaning: We don’t know exactly who Sly is thanking for letting him be himself again, but the appreciation seems soul-deep and heartfelt. Speaking of heartfelt, the work that went into coordinating the show (an earlier incarnation of which played at the Independent in 2013) had to be considerable, yet the product of all that work was undoubtedly a labor of love.

Awesome Orchestra Collective

Awesome Orchestra Collective

This was easily the biggest splash yet by UnderCover Presents, which has been assembling local bands for remakes of songs from classic albums since 2011, so it wasn’t surprising to see Executive Director Lyz Luke dancing with overflowing joy during the encore. Props also go out to co-producer Yosh! Haraguchi and music director David Moschler, as well as emcee Ricky Vincent, author of “Funk” and “Party Music,” who dressed for the occasion in a multihued tuxedo jacket, topped with an Afro wig and John Lennon shades.

Rickey Vincent (l.) and Lyz Luke

Rickey Vincent (l.) and Lyz Luke

Look for an upcoming airing of the performance on KQED (who videotaped the proceedings), as well as CDs and digital downloads of the live show. And mark your calendar for the next installment of UnderCover (at  the Independent April 3-5), which tackles Bob Marley’s Exodus. Performers reportedly include Boots Riley, Black Nature Band, Rupa & the April Fishes, Sean Hayes, Almas Frontierizas, the Broun Fellinis, T Sisters, Quartet San Francisco and more. That’s a great lineup which should build on all the momentum—and positive energy—generated by the Sly tribute.

Thank You Fa Lettin Me Be Mic Elf Agin

Thank You Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin

Lastly, Oakulture would just like to note how great it is to have the doors of the Fox open, finally, to local musicians—even if just for one night. It always seemed a little unfair to have this beautiful, restored venue right in the middle of the downtown do major shows which rarely offered local folks opportunities  to perform on that big stage, in front of big crowds. Here’s hoping that “Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand” not only broke that mold, but sets a new, welcoming, trend for the future.

Stand!

Stand!