Saturday: MC Hammer, En Vogue, and Other East Bay Artists Reminisce at KBLX Stone Soul II
Better than: Listening to KBLX for nine hours
MC Hammer, the Oakland bred '90s pop star and early Twitter adopter, took to tweeting on Saturday night after his performance at the KBLX Stone Soul II concert in Concord:
Lol .. The worst sound crew I've seen (heard) in 25yrs ... #salute to my crew for going hard in spite of them. #Professionals
We've gotta hand it to Hammer, because we wouldn't have been laughing out loud after what amounted to an unfortunate performance on a day set up to celebrate the East Bay's successful homegrown talent -- a day that also included sets from En Vogue, Con Funk Shun, the Escovedo Family, Tony! Toni! Toné!, and Lenny Williams.
As the stage was cleared and prepped for his headlining set, we were concerned not to see a band or DJ setup arrive. Hammer had chosen pre-recorded music for some reason, and the sound crew seemingly couldn't ever get it to play loudly for more than a few moments at a time. Flawed, too, was the microphone or microphones that kept cutting out and leaving us to hear only a few choppy words at a time.
At one point, Hammer went offstage as the opening strains of "They Put Me in The Mix" started up. While his hard working dancers busted some moves, he tried to rap from backstage -- but he was off by at least half a measure and it sounded like an unintentional mess. Already nine hours into a day-long show, people started streaming out of the venue.
We took the clearing house opportunity to run down to the third row in time for the finale of "U Can't Touch This," assisted by three generations of family members and friends grooving and doing their best typewriter dance. The sound issues kept the performance from being the comeback we secretly craved (so, too, did the corny rose-tossing interlude of "Have You Seen Her"?) But there were interesting moments, such as when Hammer's 16-year-old son, who goes by Booby Hammer and just had his first public performance in September, served up his first song ("Booby Hammer's The Name"), and when Hammer brought out some young local turf dancers to showcase his influence on their modern movements.
It was a surprising end to a day that did have its fair share of sonic trouble, though none so extreme as the fate that befell Hammer. Interludes between acts were mostly nimbly handled by KBLX DJs from The World Famous Rick and Russ show, save for a lengthy bit of ear-splitting feedback that took a while to turn off.
The Stone Soul II lineup was special for reasons even beyond the East Bay, since many performers' careers intertwined. Tony! Toni! Toné! used to be the band for Escovedo Family leading lady Sheila E; her brothers Juan and Peter Michael played percussion on every Con Funk Shun hit; and Con Funk Shun's Felton Pilate went on to co-produce the smash album Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em, just to mention some key connections.
Traffic kept us from seeing most of former Tower of Power lead singer Lenny Williams' set, but luck dropped us down into our seats just as he uttered the "Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!" exclamations made famous (and now immortalized on a clever poster) on "'Cause I Love You," which received an extended shelf-life when Kanye West sampled it in 2004 for Twista's hit single "Overnight Celebrity." It was recorded half of the 66-year-old Williams' life ago, but onstage he sounded just as youthful.
We cherished the moments that Tony! Toni! Toné! were on. It was great to see what we thought was the chemistry between brothers D'Wayne and Charlie Ray Wiggins; the latter changed his name to Raphael Saadiq and took off as a solo artist after the group's '90s run.
Update: only, as ASD reader Chydoll kindly wrote in to tell us after we posted this story, it wasn't Saadiq but Amar Khalil, who worked the stage like a pro, running quickly from side to side and even into the crowd for the infectious hit "Feels Good." The guys playfully teased each other about their ages and stamina levels.
"Anybody got an extra respirator out there?" asked Khalil.
The Escovedo Family (Sheila, Juan, Peter Michael, and patriarch Pete) introduced new songs from their 2011 album Now & Forever as well as delving into traditional salsa sounds and Sheila E's Prince-penned 1984 hit "The Glamorous Life." A riveting show from top to bottom, with Pete having as much energy as his children, they gave a whole new coolness to the idea of a drum circle when they rapidly traded off tight riffs on the timbales.
"We're originally from 920 East 21st St.," said Pete, shouting out an Oakland address, "and we never forgot where we came from."
Con Funk Shun, Vallejo's answer to Earth, Wind and Fire, appeared in pimped-out red suits and brought out big late-'70s/early-'80s hits like "Ffun," "Love's Train," and "Too Tight." They also announced a new album due out by Valentine's Day that may or may not be called The Sound of Grown Men. (It might have been a joke, but we think it's a great title.)
En Vogue dedicated a big portion of their time to performing a medley of songs from artists who influenced them, teasing up snippets of songs by The Supremes, Tina Turner, Cheryl Lynn, Chaka Khan, Mary Jane Girls, Labelle, and others. They clearly enjoyed themselves, but we were more excited when they shifted to their own memorable material, like "Free Your Mind," and debut single "Hold On," which they augmented here with an extended bit of "Who's Lovin' You," the Smokey Robinson-penned classic that serves as the a cappella intro to "Hold On." They, too, had a few moments where the sound failed them and the harmonies were off, but the majority of their show sounded of comparable quality to their old recordings.
With a couple of sound tune-ups, we hope KBLX will continue this strong live series that gives powerful contradiction to the station's "Quiet Storm" motto.
Personal bias: I enjoyed the heck out of the music and the people-watching at the last Stone Soul concert back in May, so I arrived prepared to have fun.
Random detail: It's a delight to watch the older snack salesman at Sleep Train who is deeply possessed of the funk and boogies his way through all these soul-centric concerts at the venue.
By the way: We saw "Stop ... Hammer Time" as well as "It's a Black Thang, You Wouldn't Understand" T-shirts, which both took us into a crazy time warp.