Spam All-Stars Pay Tribute to James Brown in New York

Categories: Concert Review
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Ernest Barteldes

Still Black, Still Proud: The African Tribute to James Brown with the Spam All-Stars
August 22, 2008
Lincoln Center, New York

Shortly prior to nightfall in Manhattan, Miami's own Spam All-Stars hit the stage during the last weekend of summer outdoor concerts at Lincoln Center to kick off a celebration of the music of the late James Brown, the legendary and highly influential singer and songwriter who during his his long career (which ended abruptly on Christmas Day 2006) inspired countless artists of different genres.

Playing to what was initially an uninterested crowd (who was there for the main act), The All-Stars began their first New York City gig with their trademark Afro-Cuban material from the disc, and little by little they won the audience over, mostly thanks to the talents of trombonist Chad Bernstein, who began drawing much applause with his spontaneous, vibrato-filled solos.

Bandleader Andrew Yeomanson (AKA Dj Le Spam) also handled the beats and bass grooves so effectively that one hardly missed the real thing. The band has great chemistry together, and their energy is quick to captivate the audience.

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Ernest Barteldes

All the musicians are highly skilled, and they were able to showcase their individuality over each tune. Guitarist Adam Zimon worked double duty both peppering the songs with clever riffs while also contributing impromptu basslines to assorted numbers, while percussionist Lazaro Alfonso (late of Irakere) added to Yeomanson's electronic beats with subtle but highly creative organic sounds.

Halfway through the set they went into a more funk-inspired mode, which finally got crowd to its feet. On the last number, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis (who served as co-musical director for the evening) briefly joined them on stage, performing an impressively scorching solo.

After a short break, the house band led by Ellis and trombonist Fred Wesley (who both worked with James Brown during the '60s and '70s) began their set with “Soul Pride,” an instrumental number that set the tone for the evening. Ellis then invited Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré to join them on stage for a tune that blended both African and soul elements. Touré did not seem out of his element here, at one point doing a call-and-response
thing with the saxophonist.

Vocalist Martha High joined the band for a beautiful Gospel number that featured three-part harmonies from Wesley, Ellis, and singer Fred Ross; the mood then changed again as Senegalese multi-instrumentalist Cheik Lô took over the drums for “Ding Dang Dong,” an original number that began with an Afro-inspired beat, shifting to a bluesy groove and then changing again to jazz -- a highly complex number that must have been challenging to put together during rehearsals. Later, Lô deftly handled the lead vocals on “It's A Man's World,” which included extended sax and trombone solos.

The evening closed with “Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud,” the civil-rights anthem Brown co-wrote with Wesley in 1969 that would become one of the Godfather of Soul's most memorable hits. Fred Ross encouraged the audience – who had been dancing for almost the entire set -- to join in “regardless of your color, gender or race,” Touré and Cheik Lô contributed by singing the tune's chorus in their native languages.

The band would not be able to go home safely without playing “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and they did so as the encore. Their version was more downtempo, closer to blues than Brown's familiar high-octane version.

The sound mixing was impeccable, with only a few mishaps -- when Touré first joined, he seemed to have minor difficulties adjusting the instrument, and there was minor feedback during one of the numbers -- all of which were quickly solved, resulting in a highly enjoyable evening for all involved.

-- Ernest Barteldes



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