THE READY-FOR-UPTOWN PLAYERS
review by Chris Spedding
So you hire this hot proffesional rhythm section, right?|
Plus you get a couple of cute girl backup singers and ... and some sexy go-go dancers.
Mmm, go on.
Add a real tight four-piece brass section.
Well, if you're serious, why not go for the Uptown Horns?
Serious? Of course I'm serious! Uptown Horns it is, then. See, here's the thing, we stage this fast, nonstop revue featuring a dozen or so of the best-kept secrets of New York's ailing music scene ...
Like it! Like it!
...give 'em all one song each to sing - you can bet they're all gonna pick their hottest number - and then get 'em all together for a big finale.
Looks great on paper, doesn't it! But could it ever work? What about potential ego battles, let alone such daunting logistical problems as getting everybody together for rehearsals? Well, all tribute to the vision and resourcefulness of producer/director Gabrial Rotello, Downtown Davis is one of those happy ideas that works as well as it scans. And since the show has recently been augmented to include Dukes (Dukes are male Davis, or they are from here on it), it is fast becoming an institution in Manhattan.
No more need we search for a half-decent band to boogie and/or imbibe to, since you can bet your last drink ticket that key members of most of the more worthwhile bands will have been invited, at some time or other, to assume the temporary mantle of either Duke or Diva. No more fruitless bar-crawls, always staggering in just a little too late to hear any music but in time to buy the drummer a drink. Because now, for the modest outlay of the price of admission to just one club - namely the Limelight, that beacon among niteries - you can catch up on some of the best club performers New York has to offer before you're halfway through your second Brandy Alexander. And your night will have only just begun.
Rotello developed this present winning formula from his experimental "Girl Night Out" shows at the Ritz a few years back during his stint as musical director/keyboardist for Ronnie Spector. Ronnie was in the show, as was another of his erstwhile employers, Darlene Love. Then followed a brief hiatus when he joined forces with guitarist john McCurry in a band project called "Grown-Ups," playing around town and cutting seemingly endless demos - but, sadly, no record deal.
Undaunted, Gabriel went back to the drawing board and this time got everything right.
The "Pre-Halloween Hullabaloo with the Downtown Dukes and Davis" on October 29 was the first time I caught the act 'though I'd been meaning to see them for ages). Interesting they dubbed it "Hullabaloo" this time around, since the whole mood of the evening recalled those Sixties rock revues - both on stage and TV - and Hullabaloo, in case you're either too young to know or have taken toomany drugs to remember, was the name of one of those TV show. Shindig was another.
But back to the Eighties. the show utilized the entire stage area at limelight, including that improbable Berkleyeque stairway-to-stained-glass-heaven, down which precarious entrances and exits were made, and perched on top of which go-go girls could be observed doing whatever it is that go-go girls do.
Never mind that the show opened with the obligatory instrumental from the horns. There is good reason that countless shows ahve opnened that way and will continue to do so - it works. Plus they played well ("music to Watch Girls By" is the prefect theme song, after all), they looked good and the sound mix was happening. So who's complaining? Not me.
First up was ex-Nite Cap Jahn Xavier with a sterling version of the soul classic "Midnight Hour." I've heard this song assassinated so many times at god-awful jams that it was a joy to hear it done well. Then three were Tish and Snooky as entertaining as always, with "Ju-Ju Hand." Uptown Horn crispin Cioe contributed a cool alto sax solo - on his upturned horn.
The fabulous Kristi Rose, minus her Midnight Walker, gave us Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts," taken at what I can only describe as bump-and-grind tempo. During Larry Saltzman's tasty guitar solo Kristi treated us to her famous "Midnight Walk" - that provocative slow, oh so slow, stroll away from the milk, those teasing glaces back over her shoulder (to delighted audience applause, I might add), and the subtle, hip-swaying "ballet moderne" back to resume the song. And if that doesn't sound like a big deal, then I guess you just gotta be there! She definitely leaves you wanting more. Great performer - and don't forget where you read it first.
Now. just when you think you know what to expect next, Gabriel throws you a curve. In the unlikely shape of Emanon Johnson. Check this out. Without any apparent aid from band, prerecorded tapes or safety-net, clutching only a hand-held mike and standing shyly off to one side as if fearful of the spotlight, Emanon (if rhymes with "M & M), managed to sustain a jungle-type drum beat using ingenious mouth noises plus (and I do mean at the same time!) whoops, hollers and bird calls. Beats the hell out of me; like to hear more, though. Emanon has some records out, so it's one more for theshopping list next time I pass Tower-records. I wonder what he does for an encore?
Next up was Earl Scooter to sing "I Put a spell On You." An admirably restrained reading with just enough of a nod in the direction of Screaming Jay Hawkins.
Now don't get me wrong. Sure guys and girls were doing a lot of covers, but no way was this your run-of-the-mill Bleecker Street-type "No cover" cover-band schtick. Some renditions of these songs were among the classiest I can remember. Anywhere.
Ever been annoyed by even the original performers of a song throwing it all away by playing their big hit too fast in live performance, sounding as if they'd played it so many times they can't wait to get it over with? Well, drummer Bobby Kent's tempos were right in the pocket, even of the slower numbers. Rare indeed. And the arrangements, particularly the Uptown Horn's intelligent deployment of ... well, they just sounded great, that's all. Example: The next artist, Dominique, had a simple, straight-ahead yet totally original reworking of "Under Mu Thumb," which, so far as I know, owed nothing to anybody except the Diva who sang it and the band whose chart it was.
And the backup singers! All too often this musical ingredient is the last to be considered and the first to be sacrificed as a supposed nonessential luxury. The prime requirements for them usually being that they look cute, wiggle around a lot, own a set of maracas and a tambourine and maybe go "oooooooooh" occasionally. In that order. so when i learned that the Divettes comprise Misses Margaret Dorn and Lisa herman, both established New York session and lead singers, well, I must admit I was impressed. I mean this Rottllo guy skimps on nothing. Not only did he find girls who can look Kaptivating in Krinolines (Kourtesy of kostume Konsultant Katy K.), but they can "oooooh" tooooo. And then some. In past lineups, Miss K. has been known to step out as one of the more definitive Divas (indicative of Gabriel's talent for not only forging an effective and cohesive production team, but also using that team to the fullest).
Oh, by the way, Michael Musto, who has performed in previous shows,relinquished his particular night to be our emcee. From his spot in the pastor's perch came introductions like this:
"We this this next girl's gonna be a big star - hopefully by next Tuesday 'cos she owes me money. You can hear her on Malcolm McLaren's new album - Miss Debbie Cole!"
Get the picture? Well if Deddie sang half good for Talcy Malcy as she did this night on a song called "Spooky," it's more than he deserved.
Musto was really warming up by this time ...
"Okay, he's tall, he's bad and he's bodacious. What more can I say? 'Mr.Attitude,' Dean Johnson!"
Well, Michael, he was surely all of these things. But the beauty of this show is that no one is long enough to strain your attention. Did I say I didn't like him? Nay! Such would be churlish! He wasn't on long enough for that.
Next up, Ula Hedwig, who ruened in a highly commendable performance of "Superetition." Deceptively difficult opus, this. for starters, it is a veritable tour de force for the brass section. But the best rhythm section in the world can make nonsense of this kind of number if they don't exactly the right groove. In the studio there is time to lock in .... but in the heat of the live moment? Well, I'm here to tell you they got that groove! Made it seem so easy, too. A joy to behold.
Moving right along, Sylvain sylvain bringing a hint of rockabilly to the evening with a song called "little Pig." I'd not seem him perform since the Dolls. Came over good solo. Used the stage well. Seemingly uninhibited by the lack of guitar to pose with or hide behind. Not many singer-guiatrists have made that transition comfortably - Elvis Presley, the daddy of them all, seemed more at ease wielding that ultimate of phallic props, even when he never designed to play it (and play it he could, believe me. You didn't know?) And oh yes, mustn't forget to mention the storming tenor sax solo on this snumber courtesy of 'Horn Arno Hecht. Nice one arno.
Cookie Watkins, now. Her choice of song, "Rebel yell," held up well against some of the more established repertoire - not our of place at all. Got me to thinking maybe young Billy-me-lad has penned another potential rock standard, what with "Dancing With Myself" already well on its way to that highly desirable yet elusive status.
Come on the finale, with the whole company doing "Gime Some Lovin'." A refreshingly unhackneyed choice, methinks.
Then I remember thinking, is that it? But ... I want more!
I checked the time and realized they'd been on the best part of an hour. So I guess you'd say a good time was had by all. certainly by me.
So backstage to say hello. Cornering Gabriel in the middle of paying everybody, I tried to get him to divulge his secret - why were so many artists, most of whom have their own thing going, so obviously pleased to be part of the show? I mean it can't be for the money. A show with that many people could be prohibitively expensive to stage.
Answered Gariel Rotello: "Everybody's afraid the music scene in New York's dying out now. The art scene's flourishing and the fashion scene's flourishing but the actual live music scene in Manhattan, which several years ago was really huge and really happening, is now ... well, people are afraid it's dying out. And the whole purpose of Divas is to bring it all together and show people what there still is in the music scene in New York. And when you invite these people to do it they're more than glad to come and do it to help make the music scene happen.
"People in the show tell me if they do a gig a couple of weeks after doing Divas they have twice as many people at their show, and they all come and say, 'Saw you in that show at Limelight ..."
Say no more, mate. All the performers I got a chance to ask gave me a unanimous, "'Cis it's fun. i love it!" Which is just the sort of indepth response you might expect in a crowded dressing room.
In other circumstances the question might have been answered, "How else can you be part of a well-produced show with a great band complete with horns, dancers and backup singers?"
No one said that. but it was probably what everyone felt. And although this was my first Diva experience, a glance at the formidable roster of talent from earlier presentation bears testimony to the unique programming possibilities that allow Gabriel to slant each show differently without compromising the integrity of the overall concept.
so here they are, those who in common whith the above mentioned, are members of this most exclusive club: Claire O'Connor, Cherry Vanilla, Donna Destri, Helen Wheels, Karon Bihari, Kieran Liscoe, Lena Koutrakos, Paul Castrato, Patti Oja, Carol Costa, Tish Gervais, Yvonne Williams, David Johansen.
And if I left anybody out ... I swear I'll leave town.
Oh, and one thing I do know. Although it probably wasn't part of the original blueprint, the versatility of the Dukes and Divas format coupled with its potent visual appeal make it a natch for a sure-fire weelky TV show. Er? Ratings assured ... different acts every week ... know what I mean?
Just don't forget where you read it first! Okay?
|Chris Spedding - the journalist|