My night on ‘The Block’

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Let me tell y’all: In 1988, it was hard out there for a black boy who liked New Kids on the Block.

It may have been pure bubble gum, but the music the New Kids put out was a lot of fun and had its fair share of soul to it. Early cuts like their cover of The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and “Please Don’t Go Girl” were enjoyable soul-shaded teen pop that reminded me of the kind of music that always filled our household, which is why I enjoyed them. At the end of the day, however, these were five white boys who had their faces plastered on everything from tote bags to Saturday morning television – and to be black, male and a fan was an open invitation to a verbal beat down from your peers. The criticism was harsh and often hurtful, as I remember an especially severe tongue lashing from one of my older sister’s ignorant-ass classmates. It didn’t matter to me though – I was a scrawny bookworm with no athletic ability, so I was used to it. I played my tapes and sported my buttons (which I still have, by the way) proudly and let the haters keep right on hating. “Just another day at the races,“ I thought.

Fast-forward 20 years to D.C.’s Verizon Center on October 2. There I was, amidst a sea of people in their late twenties and early thirties, about to live a childhood dream of mine. Like a lot of the folks there I was too young to go see them live at their peak and found the news of their reunion tour to be a thrilling prospect – but initially I wasn’t quite sure if I would be in attendance. I’d be lying if I said part of my reluctance didn’t have to do with those old memories and the idea of folks snickering at me for wanting to go. After the prodding of several friends of mine (“Boy you used to love them – you better go!” was the common refrain) I realized how silly I was being, grabbed a ticket and happily carried my ass to the show. With my shiny new tour book in hand, I took my seat and waited for the spectacle to begin. As I looked around, what amazed me most was the diversity of the crowd. Pretty much every group you could think of was represented: Whites, blacks, girls, gays and married couples with children all came out to hang tough for a night, and it gave the venue a care-free, electric energy. I was all ready to go.

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Once the New Kids took to the stage, the place fell into frenzy. Donnie, Jordan, Jon, Joey (Is it Joe now that he’s grown?) and Danny powered through all of the ditties they are known for. Favorites like “(You Got It) The Right Stuff,” “Please Don’t Go Girl,” “Tonight,” “Cover Girl,” “I’ll Be Loving Your (Forever)” and “Valentine Girl” were all there, and the group had the vocal support of thousands to help them through them. I was particularly thrilled to hear the “Step By Step” b-side “Valentine Girl” because that remains my favorite New Kids song. On it and several other selections, Jordan proved his falsetto is as sharp now as it was two decades ago – I think Stylistic Russell Thompkins Jr. and Delfonic William Hart would be proud. In fact, the group’s vocals were strong all the way around, as were the fancy footwork and flashy set and costume changes. Danny got his break dance on like he was straight out of “Beat Street,” and Joey and Jordan even offered up “Stay the Same” and “Give it to You,” their respective solo hits. By the time they closed with “Step By Step” and “Hangin’ Tough,” the crowd was hoarse, worn out, and downright ecstatic.

Though the show was heavy on nostalgia, the group managed to work several songs from their latest effort “The Block” into the set. I have to admit I was surprised by how strong the record is, as these reunion albums that have been popping up in recent years have been beyond shaky. While it’s not “Innervisions” or “Dark Side of the Moon,” it’s a solid, well-crafted pop album that can appeal to both old fans and new ones. Many of the album’s strongest tracks were included in the show: “Single,” “Summertime,” and “Grown Man” (which featured an appearance by Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger via video screen) all translated well on stage and didn’t clash with the old stuff. The group’s live take on “Click Click Click” (my personal favorite from the album) sealed the deal, proving that these Kids-turned-men have a lot of music left in them to make.

It’s been damn near a week since I saw the show, and I still can’t stop talking about it. I had a blast, and it was worth every penny. Regardless of what the haters say, I’ll always love those New Kids. Their music is part of the soundtrack to a happy, simple time in my life, and I’ll never forget that. More importantly, liking their music taught me to like what I like and be unapologetic about it. Good music is good music, good times are good times, and all that really matters is what it all means to you. Nobody should ever rob you of that.

So you’re damn straight – if they come to my town when I am 39 in 10 years, I’m still gonna party with them on the block.

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Celebrate 25 years of DeBarge’s ‘In a Special Way’ at Fly

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Though it is now regarded as a modern classic, DeBarge’s In a Special Way wasn’t exactly a high priority for those who deemed themselves discerning music lovers when it was issued.

After all, this was a good-looking quintet of teen idols aimed at kids who favoured Right On and Black Beat over Rolling Stone, a pin-up ready product of the Motown machine that brought the world their predecessors The Jackson Five. While some were generous enough to acknowledge their knack for harmonising, that was often where the praise stopped. “All style, no substance,” many critics cried.

Or so they thought.

To read the full article at Fly, click here.

Vinyl examination: The rhythm of ‘Patti Austin’

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I will never understand why Patti Austin, diva of soul, pop and jazz, never became a major star.

Her voice is clear as crystal, the kind of instrument that you recognize as soon as you hear it. A gifted singer who honed her chops singing jingles and background vocals for everyone from Kenny Loggins to Angela Bofill, the Grammy winner has recorded songs in pretty much every style imaginable. From the light fusion of her early CTI LPs like “Havana Candy” to the standards that grace her most recent outing “Avant Gershwin,” Austin’s stylistic range is astonishing in its breadth and sheer technical mastery. Oddly, that may have been part of her problem: If there is one thing that baffles the record-buying public, it is a black chick they can’t easily categorize. Add to that the fact that Austin was building her repertoire in an era when the only thing major labels were building was a legion of image-driven artists, and it’s safe to say her remarkable recordings were destined to get lost in the shuffle.

The early eighties found Austin moving in a more pop-oriented direction, waxing sides for Quincy Jones’ fledgling Qwest Records. The singer is best remembered for the timeless 1981 gem “Baby, Come to Me,” a duet with crooner extraordinaire James Ingram that shot to the top of the pop charts thanks to the popularity of the ABC soap opera “General Hospital.” Jones, who is Austin’s godfather, handled the production chores for her Qwest debut “Every Home Should Have One” and she seemed destined for the big leagues, as the album was both a commercial and critical success. Employing the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, the label continued to push Austin into shiny pop-soul territory on her eponymous 1984 follow-up. A solid collection heavy on highly stylized dance tracks, the record deserves far more attention than it’s ever gotten.

Like many albums of the period, “Patti Austin” (which was reissued on CD in 2007) utilizes a series of producers and a stellar group of players in what was likely an effort to catch as many sides of both Austin’s personality and the current musical landscape as possible. Jones, Narada Michael Walden, David Pack, Ollie E. Brown, Clif Magness and Glen Ballard take turns twisting knobs on the LP’s 10 cuts, while the likes of Bofill, Sheree Brown, Phillip Ingram, Michael McDonald and Siedah Garrett offer musical support. Los Angeles Times writer Connie Johnson praised the album’s consistency and noted that Austin embraced a kind of freedom that eluded her on previous efforts. “She affects a lowdown growl on funk numbers and even tears loose with some scatty jazz inflections,” Johnson wrote. The latter has always been Austin’s greatest asset, giving her synth-based material a bit more grace than that of a lot of her contemporaries. In less capable hands, the hit single “It’s Gonna Be Special” (No. 15 R&B), “Shoot the Moon” (No. 49 R&B) and the Walden productions “Rhythm of the Street” and “Hot! In the Flames of Love” would have been mere filler, but Austin’s inimitable verve and phrasing up the aural ante. She also excels on the pristine pop of “Starstruck” and the reggae-influenced “I’ve Got My Heart Set on You,” grooves that signal a real broadening of the Austin sound.

Never one to holler and shout, Austin knows how to grab you quietly, which is what makes her love songs so appealing. Unlike most of her other albums, however, the ballads here are a bit weaker than the dance material. Still, they are quite lovely and the singer gives them all she’s got. Of the pair of slow jams featured on the LP, “All Behind Us Now” is the strongest; it’s a straightforward, languid love song that gives her lead plenty of room to breathe and fits well into the album’s overall vibe. Dark and moody, the album’s closing number “Any Way You Can” is a fitting cool down after nearly an hour of get down – though not remarkable, it’s the closest to any of her pre-Qwest material she gets here. I’m sure fans of her early material found it to be a breath of fresh air.

Though it likely pleased her existing fan base and grabbed some new folks along the way, the record failed to make a significant mainstream impact and stalled at a paltry No. 87 on the pop albums chart. Undaunted, Austin soldiered on at Qwest, issuing the equally glossy and highly enjoyable “Gettin’ Away With Murder” in 1985. While it featured production from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the album didn’t become a major hit, a blow that likely caused Austin to return to her jazzy roots on the outstanding “The Real Me” in 1988. From that point forward, fans found Austin grooving on the chic, smooth jazz tip, a medium that has helped her remain a popular attraction in concert and on record to this day. Just this year, she snagged a Grammy for her critically acclaimed album “Avant Gershwin.”

The Qwest album from Austin’s canon that always seems to get overlooked, “Patti Austin” didn’t shatter any glass ceilings and at its root was probably never intended to. A product of the big eighties, it’s as solid as anything fellow divas like The Pointer Sisters or Patti LaBelle were having success with at the time and should have found a similar fate. It just seems that it wasn’t meant to happen. No matter, as it’s as tasty as the brightest moments from any of the singer’s other incarnations. And at the end of the day, it is the versatility that records like this bring to Austin’s catalog that make her one of the most treasured stylists of the last three decades.

“Patti Austin” is proof that no matter what she sings, the sister will leave you starstruck.

Take a few ‘Lessons’ from Blueheels

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The band of brothers known as Blueheels rock hard.

A homegrown blend of rock, country and blues, their latest release “Lessons in Sunday Driving” hits you with a balance of freshness and familiarity that few bands are able to strike. Over the course of a dozen songs, Robby Schiller, Adam Cargin, Justin Bricco, Landon Arkens and Teddy Pedriana flourish whether they crank the energy up high or bring it down low, a strength that makes “Lessons” a fun, engaging listen.

Indeed, these boys are damn good. Based in Madison, Wisconsin, the band’s brand is void of the pretention and fabricated pretty-boy angst that clouds much of commercial rock. Anchored by Schiller’s salty, knowing vocals, the band seems to shine brightest in the quiet, confessional mode of their forefathers. “Desperate,” “Not to Say Goodbye” and “If You Love Her” weave emotive lyrics and mournful guitars into tangible expressions of melancholy, while the dramatic, slow-burning “Trampled Rose” seamlessly blends the hard and soft sides of band’s musical personality. As I said in my piece on soul-singin’ white boys, sometimes soul goes beyond how we conventionally view it, and that sentiment is captured greatly in these songs. It’s not always a matter of a song fitting neatly into the category of soul – the key is that the song comes from the soul, and these most certainly do.

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That’s not to say they don’t rock out when they want to. Jams like “Keep Your Mouth Shut,” “Holiday Parade” and the autobiographical “Small Western Town” are plucky grooves that are a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, workouts that are just a plain old good time. Elsewhere, the self-deprecating ode to love-struck bliss “I Tried Not to Love Her” puts their good humor out front and center for what is arguably the most enjoyable track on the album. Such joy is what really makes the album as a whole click, as it is clear that these dudes have a strong, unwavering love of music and the joy it brings both them and their growing fan base.

Bursting with rhythm and energy, “Lessons in Sunday Driving” is sure to win Blueheels the praise and adoration they undoubtedly deserve. These boys should be doing their thing on stages worldwide, and I am happy to say I had the chance to experience them as they continue their journey toward higher heights and the chance to school their fellow rockers with some essential “Lessons.”

To purchase “Lessons in Sunday Driving,” click here.

To learn more about Blueheels, click here.

Happy 50th Birthday, Your Highness!

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Michael Joseph Jackson, The King of Pop, hit the big 5-0 today.

Words can’t express how much I love this man’s music. Controversy and tough times aside, this man is the blueprint. From Usher to Chris Brown, you see the influence of those fluid moves and inimitable vocal inflections in all of today’s up and coming black talent. The world will never see another star of his magnitude, plain and simple. I loved him over two decades ago when I was trying to learn his every dance move and make the sidewalk light up a la “Billie Jean,” and I love him now.

He’s still the man.

Happy Birthday, MJ!

Vinyl examination: This ‘Odyssey’ is more than a disco fantasy

I loved the elegant soul of Odyssey before I even knew who they were.

Their 1977 hit single and signature song “Native New Yorker” was immortalized on “Good Times” when Thelma Evans, played by Bernadette Stanis, did a heavenly dance to the song as part of a talent show to save the community center’s day care program. (Don’t act like ya’ll haven’t seen that rerun thousands of times.) Aside from Thelma’s smooth moves, I was taken by the sleek, urbane sway of the song and the catchy story it told. I found out years later that “disco” trio Odyssey – Lillian Lopez, Louise Lopez and Tony Reynolds (later replaced by Bill McEachern) – were the voices that took the song to No. 6 R&B/No. 21 pop and made it a staple on R&B radio decades later. Though Odyssey (who was managed by a then-unknown Tommy Mottola) was signed to RCA – a label that experienced tons of success in the disco market with acts like Faith, Hope and Charity, Vicki Sue Robinson and The Hues Corporation – one listen to the trio’s eponymous debut proves they were a soul act first and foremost.

This was hardly paint-by-numbers disco, as “Odyssey” (No. 16 R&B/No. 36 pop) had more to do with uptown soul than danceable histrionics. The luminous, island-flavored backdrop was perfect for the group’s sweet blends, a formula buoyed by the chops of session men like Richard Tee (keyboards), Randy Brecker (trumpets) and Michael Brecker (reeds). The bubbly, vibraphone-infused “Weekend Lover” (No. 37 R&B/No. 57 pop) and “The Woman Behind the Man” are lush, beautifully orchestrated creations that emphasize melody as much as vocal presentation. Lead singer Lillian Lopez had a rich vocal timbre that gave the group’s material a warmth and earthiness akin to the free-flowing garments and braided hair they donned in their photos. Still, there were some dancers there: The Latin disco of “Easy Come, Easy Go” and the spiritual “Thank You God for One More Day” are pleasing, tuneful delights that work in the contexts of both listening and dancing.

Amazingly, the ballads were the LP’s strong points. “Ever Lovin’ Sam” and “Golden Hands” excel, with the latter featuring an affirming message about a boy named Michael who aspires to have his hoop dreams lift him out of the ghetto’s oppression. It sounds sappy, but it works surprisingly well when you consider the time it comes from. Elsewhere, “You Keep Me Dancin’”, despite its misleading title, is meant to do anything but – it’s a romantic tribute to the man whose sweetness is the song that transcends any superficial advances hurled at the singer. Such sentiments are what made this album an interesting release. Even though it was issued in the dizzying days of disco, there’s an overwhelmingly positive, almost poignant feel to its selections. I can’t help but wonder if it was their goal to put a spin on their debut that was the antithesis of the “let’s get high and screw” underpinning of what surrounded them on shelves, airwaves and dance floors at the time. Indeed, there was much promise to be explored here.

Odyssey continued to record for RCA through 1982’s “Happy Together” which featured the Top 20 R&B hit and steppers’ favorite “Inside Out.” (If you’ve ever heard it or plan on seeking it out, the similarities between it and Slave’s “Watching You” are astonishing. It has been written that there was some rhythm-section overlap between the two hits, including Slave’s Steve Arrington himself on drums. It’s still funky as hell regardless.) Though they never scored another hit as big as “Native New Yorker,” they were one of the more interesting groups to emerge during the late seventies. While this and their other LPs are long out of print, their songs are regularly featured on compilations and soundtracks: “Native New Yorker” was prominently featured in the film “54,” while “Inside Out” was included on the album “Smooth Grooves: After Hours.”

No matter what you’ve read or may have heard, this is an “Odyssey” that’s not typical of its era. A more than fitting addition to any collection of sophisticated soul, it’s the kind of record that goes beyond the singles-driven period it surfaced in. What you have here is a fully realized, highly enjoyable work, if I do say so myself.

Check out the hits “Native New Yorker” and “Weekend Lover” below.

We hear you, Keaton Simons

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The times we’re living in have been pretty murky on the music tip. Over the last few years, we’ve been subjected to a blur of Kewpie doll ingénues masking their shit vocals in bleeps and blips and hypermasculine hip-hop cartoons with little to no redeeming value. So I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled across an article in the Express newspaper a while back about singer-guitarist Keaton Simons’ latest release. His CBS Records debut, the freewheeling “Can You Hear Me,” is one of the best records I’ve heard this year. Light and lean, it’s the perfect summer record and showcases a young voice with quite a bit of potential.

Simons, who’ll appear Aug. 24 at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Va., on the Sweep the Leg Tour, has a mastery of rollicking, rootsy blues-rock that’s wise beyond his years. His resume is a musical gumbo of sorts, as the young singer has notched stints with everyone from The Pharcyde’s Tre Hardson to Brand New Heavies chanteuse N’Dea Davenport. The open tone of the West Coast music scene is prevalent in Simons’ approach, a sensibility perfected across past efforts “Currently” and “Exes and Whys” and expertly executed on “Can You Hear Me.” There’s a soulful sweetening to the sparse, guitar-sprinkled arrangements of the album’s 11 cuts that suits the rasp of Simons’ vocals to a tee. Whether singing about the secret joy of forbidden love on “Nobody Knows” or relaying the sunny ode to optimism that is the lead single “Good Things Get Better,” Simons brings quite a bit of charm and exuberance to his material. But the singer rocks hardest on “Mama Song,” a frenzy of fuzzy guitar that’s as unrestrained and ballsy as a mid-nineties Lenny Kravitz groove. A little edge goes a long away, and it’s a look that works for him.

Most of the album, however, is in the confessional singer-songwriter vein perfected by the likes of Carly Simon and Stephen Bishop many moons ago. “Unstoppable,” “To Me,” and “Currently” are paeans to the many sides of love that are notable for both their introspective narratives and ripe sensuality. Such intimacy beams brightest on “Without Your Skin,” the opening track and arguably the strongest among the lot. When he sings “without your skin … I’m naked,” you feel it – and sensuality morphs into untouched sexiness in one vocal swoop. Simons’ understanding of bringing across a variety of emotions is his trump card, the asset that raises him above the mediocrity of the pack.

In short, “Can You Hear Me” is an outstanding record, another step in Simons’ move into the league of extraordinary singing tunesmiths. Not too brash and not too mellow, Simons’ brand is one that will grow more and more appealing as the passage of time seasons his craft.

He says it himself, after all: Good things get better.

Keaton Simons will appear at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Va., on Aug. 24 as part of the Sweep the Leg Tour. For more information, click here.

Check him out singing “Good Things Get Better” below.