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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Aloe Blacc Summons Al Green, Michael Jackson, Sly Stone, and Green Day at Rickshaw Stop

Posted By on Thu, Nov 4, 2010 at 2:00 AM

Aloe Blacc at Rickshaw Stop last night.
  • Aloe Blacc at Rickshaw Stop last night.
Aloe Blacc and the Grand Scheme
DJ Matthew Africa
November 3, 2010
@ Rickshaw Stop

Better than: Watching replays of replays of replays of Wednesday's S.F. Giants parade.

Classic soul is like sex, pizza, and sunsets: While there are major differences in style, the feeling is pretty much the same each time. And no matter how much you've had, you're always going to want more.

So consider it wise that for Good Things, his latest album, the Panamanian-descended, Orange County-raised, USC-educated Aloe Blacc donned the vocal and musical stylings of of soul greats like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. (He's formerly worked as a rapper, producer, and a consultant for the auditing firm Ernst & Young.) 

The album's 13 songs are as derivative of '70s R&B as they are gorgeous, thanks to Blacc's glassy vocals and his band's funk-forward arrangements. And while there's a big philosophical argument to be had about Blacc's borrowing habits, no one at Rickshaw Stop gave a damn about any of that last night. Blacc and his band, the Grand Scheme, summoned Al Green, Michael Jackson, Sly & The Family Stone, Green Day, and a diverse mix of others from Good Times' pleasingly familiar soul perch. The rolling rhythms and soaring vocals left the crowd reeling -- and left no room for sweating conceptual details. Like animalian urges or cheese pies, Blacc's classic soul proved nearly impossible to not enjoy.

The singer, dressed in a dapper hat and a gray coat with the lapel turned up, introduced what would become a live mixtape of a set with a neat positivity: "Welcome to the church of 'Love and Happiness,'" Blacc announced, as his four-piece band toyed with the familiar sway of Al Green's classic. 

"This is how you make a 'Soul Train' line"
  • "This is how you make a 'Soul Train' line"

In this church, others' songs are as important as Blacc's. But while he and the band picked up pieces of many R&B hits, their goal lies beyond playing a good cover. "I want to extend your idea of what soul music is," he explained, before the band took off on a speedy, warped instrumental trip through Sly & The Family Stone's "If You Want Me To Stay." After extended solos from the band members, Blacc returned to the mic and sang, of all things, a verse from Green Day's "Basket Case" over the Sly bass riff. Somehow, he made it work.

Earlier, Blacc treated the crowd to a cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale," a highlight from the excellent Good Times. "I took a rock song and made it R&B," he said -- and indeed, the Velvets' stuttering ode to Edie Sedgewick poured out of the five musicians like an Al Green standard.

Few of the night's covers struck the audience like a a slow blues rendition of "Billie Jean" that Blacc dropped early on, as if to win over any remaining skeptics in the house. As the band shuffled through a spacious arrangement of Michael Jackson's hit, Blacc peppered the room's tight darkness with sultry howls and yawps. The band's loud-quiet dynamic changes teased the crowd with tension as Blacc dribbled out the chorus one word at a time. He left the crowd stunned -- and made the song his own.

Surprising last night was the contrast between Blacc's new songs, many of which ache with the ails of life in America (his best-known song is "I Need A Dollar," a not-too-veiled reference to losing his consulting job), and his effusively upbeat stage persona. Blacc preached repeatedly last night about love, loving yourself, loving others, and almost seemed to apologize while introducing the bouncy, remorseful jam, "Loving You Is Killing Me." The cheerfulness grew cloying with the self-affirming "I'm Beautiful," from his 2006 debut. But Blacc communicated all the regret in the reggae-tinted "Miss Fortune," and the God-fearing worry of "Take Me Back."

"This is how you make a 'Soul Train' line"
  • "This is how you make a 'Soul Train' line"
The preacher of the "Church of 'Love and Happiness'" couldn't spoil the crowd's jubliance, no matter how dark his lyrics. The sweaty audience swayed throughout the entire set, and when Blacc urged the formation of a dancing line from the TV show "Soul Train," it abided. The group cleared a big space in the middle of the floor, and after Blacc spun through it, many others loosened up and danced at the center as well. "That was special," Blacc applauded afterward. At the very least, it testified to the powerful appeal of his basic old soul music -- though it's up for discussion how much of it is really his.

Critic's Notebook:

Openers: Maya Jupiter "had to cancel due to illness," and Peanut Butter Wolf "couldn't make the show," according to the venue's website. But DJ Matthew Africa spun smooth funk and old-school R&B while we all waited for Blacc.

Personal bias: I have heard that there are some people out there who don't like old soul music, but as far as I know, I haven't met any.

Overheard: During the break between the main set and the encore, a few people near me chanted "Let's Go Aloe" -- kinda like that other chant you've been hearing around the city lately.

Highlight: I'd be remiss without mentioning Blacc's closing cover -- "California Dreamin'," by the Mamas and the Papas, which started out slow and boosted up to a satisfying groove.

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Ian S. Port


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