John Legend and the Roots: Wake Up!


RIYL: Bill Withers, The Roots, Raphael Saadiq

john-legend-roots-wake-up-cover-e1279246652953[1] Before he reached the presidency – and thus subjected himself to at least four years of being picked apart, second-guessed, and portrayed as a letdown by pollsters and pundits – Barack Obama was a signal of meaningful social change, and a source of profound inspiration, to millions of Americans. His roots as an urban community organizer served as a reminder of a time when community really meant something – particularly in the black community – and raised hopes for a return to outreach, investing in urban infrastructure, and a renewed focus on the common good.

People were hoping for a paradigm shift, in other words, and those never happen as quickly, simply, or clear-cut as we feel like they should (as a passing glance at any newspaper will tell you). But that’s the thing about major change: As slowly as things might seem to be moving on the surface, moments of inspiration have a way of paying unexpected dividends. Case in point: John Legend and the Roots’ Wake Up!

Conceived during the 2008 election, Wake Up! combines Legend’s political awakening with the Roots’ peerless soul scholarship to produce an album that functions on two levels: One, as a call to greater personal responsibility and communal awareness, and two, as a sort of gateway into the classic records Legend and the Roots chose to cover. As chief Roots ambassador ?uestlove points out in the liner notes, these songs will be appreciated by two generations – the folks who still remember Baby Huey, Bill Withers, Harold Melvin, and Donny Hathaway, and the younger listeners who have grown up hearing bits and pieces of the music repurposed for hip-hop beats. (In a nifty, knowing twist, Wake Up! includes a cover of Ernie Hines’ “Our Generation” that features a guest verse from CL Smooth, who sampled the song 18 years ago.)

There’s something a little off-putting about the fact that a call to attention this powerful has to rely so heavily on songs that have been around for decades, and listening to Wake Up! – as with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s similarly themed 2006 cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album, conceived in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – you may find yourself alternating between feelings of joy and disappointment. It’s hard not to wonder why today’s young soul artists aren’t making new music this marvelously aware – or why, if Legend was going to end the album with an original cut, he couldn’t have come up with something more deserving than the mawkish “Shine.”

On the other hand, great music is timeless, and there’s no denying that every one of these classic songs is every bit as resonant today as the day it was originally released – or that Legend and the Roots prove capable, empathic interpreters of the material. Wake Up! isn’t a new soul classic, but it reaffirms the undimmed relevance of the artists who helped shape the genre’s golden era. Here’s hoping the album expands the spirit of inspiration that brought it to life – and that other artists heed its title’s call. (Columbia/G.O.O.D.)

John Legend MySpace page

  

The Best of Soul Train (3 DVD)


RIYL: ’70s soul, really bad fashion, Afro-Sheen

Prior to MTV (to say nothing of the network’s lack of acceptance for soul and rap music for half a decade or so) and BET, or for those of us who just didn’t have cable for a long time, “Soul Train” was the primary destination for soul music lovers looking to check out their favorite artists. Running for over three decades, just about everyone who was ever anyone in R&B or hip-hop stood on the hallowed “Soul Train” stage and performed as dozens of young, stylish dancers showed off their latest moves.

Time-Life has recently opened the “Soul Train” vaults and unleashed a nine-DVD set containing hours of performances, interviews and legendary routines, and even more recently, some of the all-time classic performances have been compiled onto the “Best of Soul Train” DVD.

This 3-disc set contains performances from some of the all-time greats of soul music, and almost all of them come from the show’s first few years, 1971-1979. (Stevie Wonder provides the only content coming from a later date, with a 1991 medley of his hits.) Although many of “Soul Train’s” guests lip-synched, this set is heavy on the rare live performances. They include a sweaty run through “That Lady” by the Isley Brothers, riveting performances of “Use Me” and “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers, an impromptu duet of “Ooh Baby Baby” by Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson, and a performance by Barry White and a huge orchestra that must have required Don Cornelius’s production company to expand the Soul Train stage.

In addition to those performances, you get mimed but still incredible performances by the Jackson 5, the Commodores and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (featuring a frighteningly dressed Teddy Pendergrass). There’s also interview footage from those shows (worth the cost for the Marvin Gaye segment alone) as well as several dance routines that show how ahead of their time the Soul Train dancers were (in addition to how horrendous some of the fashions of the time were). You also get to see some of the groundbreaking commercials that ran during the Soul Train episodes, among the first ads to feature products geared exclusively towards a black audience. Bonus footage includes interviews with Soul Train creator/host Don Cornelius, the legendary Smokey Robinson, and Soul Train dancer-turned-Grammy winning singer Jody Watley.

As an admitted “Soul Train”-aholic, I’m hoping that eventually the highlights from every episode (up until the mid-Nineties, when I pretty much stopped watching) gets released. However, if you are a fan of soul music in any one of its incarnations, you need to have this DVD in your collection. So throw on your tightest bell-bottoms, pick your afro, and take a ride on the funkiest train in music history. As Don famously stated at the end of each episode, “you can bet your last money that it’s gonna be a stone gas, honey!”
(Time-Life 2010)

  

George Benson: Songs and Stories


RIYL: Anything that’s smooth jazz

When you have ten Grammys, it can’t be easy to keep making award-winning music, but George Benson may do just that with his latest, Songs and Stories. Admitting that he keeps things fresh by focusing on the basics, a.k.a., songs and the stories that make up those songs, Benson dug into the material of some of his favorite songwriters, including James Taylor, Smokey Robinson, Bill Withers and Donnie Hathaway – and even had some other tracks specifically written for this project. Then what Benson brings to the table is what he does best: play the guitar like a tasty madman and deliver soulful and pitch-perfect vocals. Some of the highlights are the Al Jarreau-ish “Show Me the Love” which was written by project producer Marcus Miller as well as Toto’s David Lukather and David Paich; the bluesy “Come In from the Cold,” written by Marc Broussard, Radney Foster and Justin Tocket; and a take on Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” that will remind you of Benson’s “Breezin’” days. And of course Benson does a terrific job on the opening track, James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” which sounds like it could and should be a ubiquitous smooth jazz staple. George doesn’t ever disappoint, and he surely doesn’t here. (Concord 2009)

George Benson website

  

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