This has been a challenging year for summer outdoor concerts in New York, to say the least. It’s impossible to remember if events across the city parks were ever cancelled en masse as they were a couple of weekends ago because of the heat. If there was ever a July where the chickens came home to roost to crush the global warming deniers’ conspiracy theories, this was it.
So maybe it’s understandable that on the one deliciously cool night of the week, people would be slow to get out of reflex mode, holed up in front of their air conditioners while Lee Fields and the Expressions were playing a simmering set of mostly midtempo oldschool soul songs at Damrosch Park. At its peak Saturday evening, the space might have been at half capacity. And that’s not a fault of programming: anyone who remembers the huge crowds that Sharon Jones used to draw around town knows how popular 1960s-style soul music remains. Still, it was weird to see a Lincoln Center Out of Doors bill that wasn’t close to being sold out.
The synergy between the gritty-voiced sixtysomething frontman and his devoted backing band, at least a generation removed, is clear. They get a seasoned master of moving crowds and getting people to get down, and he gets a bunch of guys who totally get what he does. Over the years, they’ve been a rotating cast of characters, although their collective sonics are spot-on retro.
This particular bassist had tweaked his big Marshall stack and Fender Jazz model to get a perfect, late 60s style clicky attack and decay that fell away almost as fast. In tandem with the group’s nimble, precisely swinging drummer, it wasn’t quite as if Fields had Booker T & the MGs backing him – but it was close. The keyboardist switched between a smoky B3 organ sound and subtle, low-key, bubbling Rhodes piano. The two-man horn section – trumpet and tenor sax – added spicy staccato and looming ambience, while the group’s conguera provided extra texture as well as animated backing vocals. Guitarist Thomas Brenneck ran his vintage hollow-body through generous amounts of reverb, shifting expertly between expansive chords, plaintively lingering accents and a little chicken-scratch funk.
After awhile, two-chord soul vamps tend to blend into each other, but the band mixed them up. At one point Brenneck nicked the “if we ever get out of here” riff from Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run and then ran with it. Methodically and seamlessly, they shifted from the sly come-on Will I Get Off Easy, to the insistent, practically hypnotic Love Prisoner, to the indignantly forceful Wake Up. “I’m sick of all these lies!” Fields railed.
Getting a listless crowd to sing along proved to be as much of a slog for Fields as it was for the other artists on the bill. On one hand, watching Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada play similarly expert soul riffs behind a parade of oldschool and newschool Texas soul singers was impressive. On the other hand, not everybody crossing the stage seemed up for it. And while it’s admirable that he would assemble an album resurrecting several veteran Tejano soul stars from the 60 and 70s, doing it as a deal with the devil is something we should not encourage. We’ve all read the horror stories coming out of Amazon: the Dickensian working conditions, employees having to carry pee bottles because they don’t get bathroom breaks, and the relentless, Orwellian surveillance, everybody scrambling to beat the clock that keeps track of every single movement. Corporations like Amazon love the PR that comes from token attempts to support the arts and create an illusion of dedication to multiculturalism. But let’s not fall for it.
Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow night, July 31 at Damrosch Park at 7:30 PM featuring a wildly diverse all-female lineup including but not limited to Americana soul songstress Courtney Marie Andrews, vintage Americana maven Rhiannon Giddens, Afro-Cuban singer Xiomara Laugart, legendary AACM singer/organist Amina Claudine Myers and formidable jazz vocalist/bandleader Charenée Wade.