A Spot-On, Politically Fearless Live Album From the Impassioned Kemp Harris
Songwriter/pianist/activist/actor Kemp Harris has made a career out of absolutely smoking you with a lyric when you least expect it. His signature blend of politically smart oldschool soul, gospel and funk earned him a devoted following on the crunchy circuit. His gritty, expressive vocals hardly hint that he was in his late sixties the evening he played a dynamic, impassioned set on February 29, 2020 at the Bird in San Francisco with a pickup band. Less than two weeks later, concerts there were criminalized by California dictator Gavin Newsom in order to comply with a cabal of tech Nazis hell-bent on turning the entire world into an Orwellian surveillance state.
Harris’ show happened to be recorded, and has now been released as the album Live at the Bird SF. streaming at Bandcamp. It’s endemic of the glut of live recordings that no one at the time ever thought they’d release, which are now being dumped all over the web. If there’s any silver lining to this dismal era in human history, some of those shows turned out to be fantastic, and this one has its moments.
Harris opens the show as a duo with drummer Jim Lucchese. You’re going to want to start with the third track, Ruthie’s, a wise, aphoristic illustration of the utility of hanging away from idiots intent on starting a confrontation. “Escape from the lions, let the gladiator games begin,” Harris intones midway through.
He brings up bassist Jose Saravia and guitarist James Nash for a haphazardly swampy, simmering take of the political broadside Sweet Weeping Jesus. Saravia runs the hook from the Isley Bros.’ Money, underscoring the political context in the flood metaphors of Didn’t It Rain: “I saw the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time,” Harris avers.
The sarcasm, and the surprise punchline of Edenton are absolutely withering, Harris reflecting on his childhood in a supportive but insular North Carolina black community surrounded by sinister forces. He and the band hit a minimalist Bill Withers vamp that picks up with a funky syncopation in Invisible, with a hip hop-flavored interlude that looks back to an iconic Ralph Ellison novel.
After a medley of covers and a bit of a hopeful original in tribute to Martin Luther King, he turns in an emphatic, gospel-infused solo take of Willie Nelson’s Night Life, then brings the band back for a sly, funky, suggestive take of The Rain Came Down.
He gives Wiggle the same vibe with tinges of reggae and hip-hop, finds the inner hymn in Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, and closes the set with Swing Down Chariot, a funky remake of the gospel standard. The first of the encores is a late-period Buddy Guy-ish take of the blues Going Down. Harris winds up the night with a benedictory, hopeful solo version of Good Night America.