Thursday, May 24, 2012

Finding Avery Sunshine...

…not that she was ever lost. The discovery is in fact ours; those of us late in recognizing a “hidden gem” in the melting pot (and sometimes “cesspool”) of music today. It was an innocent enough discovery: an evening drive with a barrage of slow jam classics playing on Washington D.C.’s WHUR, when sandwiched between the some things “old” and even “borrowed,” I heard something “new”: a bare-all, no-holds-barred, melodic approach to an apology, titled, “Ugly Part of Me,” a song about a woman asking for forgiveness from her man for her off-the-cuff, unexpected and, well, ugly actions during an argument. Rare indeed, and not much heard of since Anita Baker’s 1994 “I Apologize.” And so my curiosity was peaked. Peaked enough to buy Avery’s 2010 self-titled, debut (and only) album; peaked enough to see what she was about live and in living color. I got that opportunity on a rainy, Wednesday night at D.C.’s famed Blues Alley, and what I witnessed was incomparable to anything she could have captured on disc.

There are some artists you simply have to see live. I quickly realized she is definitely one. Taking to the Blues Alley stage (her second appearance there), it soon became apparent why the show was sold out; why you could feel an anticipation in the air; why she already has “followers”—or as she calls them “family”—who have memorized her play list. Petite in stature with a closely cropped ‘do adorned with glitter and dolled up in flawless makeup, Avery sashayed to the baby grand piano, accompanied by her musical partner and guitarist, Dana Johnson; a local bass guitarist; and a drummer—and brought down the house for 90 minutes. With the musical talent of a Rachelle Ferrell; the stage presence and humor of a Ledisi; and the vocal chops of a Gladys Knight, simply put, the girl is bad.

In between songs, she’s candid in talking about her past (she’s a Spelman grad; a former choir director; a divorced mother of two); her present (the financial struggles to put out her next album; the woes of pining for that special someone); and her future (wanting to get married again for love, although she once promised the next time she did it, it would be for money). And in between the sharing and the laughter—even pausing to tell an audience member to “cut out all that talking over there,”—she’s a bona fide crooner; she's easily the real deal. If I wasn’t convinced from the delivery of her original material, I was sold as she effortlessly transitioned from her own songs to her rendition of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” to covers of classic Luther, Aretha, and Michael (no last names needed). But it wasn’t until she left the stage (all too soon for me) and returned to do an encore performance of gospel classics, that I witnessed what every artist should strive to be—a medium for something greater than themselves.

Her roots are clearly in the church. And like many secular artists who pay homage to those roots with a song or two on their albums (Brian McKnight has done so for years; so has El DeBarge), Avery features a jazzy rendition of “(The Lord is) Blessing Me” on hers. But what I have never seen is an artist perform those songs live, and turn their concert into a full-on worship experience. For when Avery flowed from “Blessing Me” into “Safe in His Arms,” a gospel classic that unless you’re without a pulse, you will feel something, concert goers were on their feet—with their hands lifted in praise! She took the crowd to church and even commanded, “Don’t feel funny about that Hennessey sitting on your table; you better praise Him while you got the chance. It could be your last.” Enough said. And we did. Before her final exit, she took it back to hand-clapping gospel, stood center stage, and broke the crowd down vocally to do what she also does well—direct. And, I must say, we sounded pretty damn good with that four-part harmony too—until she jumped back on the piano and purposely changed key. *sigh* Choir directors (smile).

By the time the house lights came up, I seriously considered staying for the second, almost-sold-out show. A definite first for me. But I decided to savor the moment, and play her CD on the drive home instead. It was satisfying, but nothing like seeing her do her thang in person, and was I ever happy I got to.

Although it often saddens me to see how often true talent is overlooked or to see the struggle many must endure just to get a quarter of the recognition the “not-so-talented” is so easily given (thanks many times to auto tune, a good weave, and a half-naked body parading around the stage), I felt absolute joy in experiencing this “hidden gem” for myself. For being able to say, “I saw her when….” for talent that big—and pure—cannot be contained for long. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment and hope, like most hidden gems, once they’re discovered, they’re properly put on display and revered. So Avery, continue to shine, girl. You are indeed a diamond—nothing rough about it.

Check out Avery Sunshine's official video for "Ugly Part of Me":

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Remembering the Godfather

I don’t know how old I was when I first heard go-go. However, I do know it was love at first listen. And the man responsible for that “love affair” came right on time but also left us far too soon: The Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown.

Though there’s not an exact point of reference, my earliest recollection of the Godfather’s music was the breakout hit, “Bustin’ Loose,” an infectious jam with a sound closer to mainstream "funk" than any other go-go song probably ever had. Yet, there was still something different that let you know this was something bigger than funk. This was a new sound in town, and the more you heard it, the more of it you wanted, from the thumping percussion to the blaring horns; the syncopation, the call and response, and even that gravelly voice riding over the beat telling us that, "You got to give a lot just to get what you need sometimes...." Oh yeah, we wanted more of this, and boy did we get it!

Although Chuck had been “movin’ and groovin’” in the world of jazz, blues, and Latin music long before many of us even came into this world, his creation of go-go gave Washington, D.C. something that no other music had—an identity; something to call our own; a sense of pride. Even through the ups and downs the city faced over the years from falling mayors to the crack epidemic to gentrification, go-go remained consistent, like a life-long friend and gave us a sense of “home.”

It was the soundtrack to our youth. It was there at the cookouts, the house parties, the Back-to-School boogies, the park concerts. It was there when you got that number or gave yours out for the first time. It was there when you convinced your parents to let you buy your first Dookie gold rope or “Run Joe” sweatshirt. It was there when you got your first set of wheels and you’d lean on the car, open the windows, and let the bass thump. And as we got older, it was there at the wedding receptions, the reunions, and the pool parties. And behind it all was Chuck Baby.

As the music and the movement continued to grow, birthing other local “stars” like Experience Unlimited (E.U.), Rare Essence, Little Benny and the Masters, and the Junkyard Band, some groups attempted to evolve in a quest to get a taste of the mainstream fame that probably drew them to pick up instruments as kids in the first place. There was just one problem: not many understood or embraced go-go outside of the D.C. area. It was the blessing and the curse: a curse for those artists who wanted more recognition; a blessing for those of us who didn’t want the world to take what was rightfully ours and turn it into nothing more than a “cash cow.” And so with flashes of national recognition here and there, much like the Prodigal Son, go-go always returned to its Godfather—and we couldn’t have been happier.

Times continued to change; the audiences got older; going to see a live go-go show or hear some around the city got a bit tougher (as, ironically, most local clubs will not allow it to be played due to the “high energy” it causes in its patrons), but we always knew that a trip down memory lane or a night of unadulterated partying was just a Chuck Brown show away. Even as Chuck grew older, venues continued to grow larger, and his name would share the marquee with such notable acts as Jill Scott, the Roots, and Erykah Badu. Whether playing the 9:30 club or the famed Howard Theater, shows would sell out in a matter of days, and now two and three generations of lifelong fans were shouting “Wind me up, Chuck” together. For when you’re at a Chuck Brown party, you never think the party—along with the beat—will end. Unfortunately, it came to an unexpected halt on May 16th.

In the instant the news broke about the Godfather’s passing from a brief illness at the “young age” of 75, there was not one D.C. area native whose entire youth did not flash before their eyes. It was akin to losing that uncle and knowing you’ll never hear his jokes again. Or losing that aunt and knowing you’ll never have her sweet potato pie again. It was losing your mom, and knowing you’ll never hear her voice again. It was losing your dad, and knowing you’ll never see him working under the car again. It was losing an icon and knowing you’ll never see him standing in front of that mic again, tall and lean, signature hat slightly cocked to the side, guitar strapped to his body, 10+ piece band fading in with that oh-so-familiar percussion, and the crowd beginning its signature chant, before a rich, deep baritone so smoothly replied, “Aww, ya spoil me now; I love you so much.”

Well, Godfather, you spoiled us and we love you for it, for you gave us a lifetime worth of memories that can not be replaced. With every call and response, you gave us our youth back. And with every riff on your guitar, you gave us a magic that we held on to tightly and kept deep down in our souls. Yes, we trust go-go will live on and will always be a part of the fabric of the Nation’s Capital. It will continue to evolve and, hopefully, grow with the emergence of new go-go bands every day. But no one will ever be able to make us feel like you did; no one will ever be able to set the rhythm and flow of an entire city to music; and no one will ever be able to replace the greatness that was Charles Louis Brown. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rest in peace.