May 29, 2012

Hurricane Nikka Funks Up The Hamilton

Nikka Costa delivered a groove-filled set of funky tunes on Wenesday at Johnny D’s.

When I mentioned to a number of people that I was going to see Nikka Costa at The Hamilton in DC, I got the exact same response..."Nikka, Who?" (ironically, an actual Nikka Costa song title)

With the likes of Katy Perry, Rihanna, and whomever the latest Disney Channel alum is littering the Top 10, it’s expected that the average person wouldn’t know Nikka Costa. They should.

I made the mistake of explaining to these same people that “Nikka is sort of the female equivalent of Lenny Kravitz.” 

The Kravitz comparison is selling Costa short. A better description might be: Walk into your Rock & Roll Kitchen and throw the aforementioned Mr. Kravitz, Sly Stone, Prince, James Brown, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and a dash of ‘70s vintage Robert Plant and Mick Jagger all into one sexy-ass cauldron and what would you get? Honeybabysweetiedoll – Nikka Costa!

Backed by a five-piece band, Hurricane Nikka roared onstage in a blur of hair, double-sided tape, disco-era gold lamé pants, knee-high boots, and moves worthy of the Soul Train Dance Line to a cover of Sly’s Dance To The Music. The funk pace rarely dissipated as she ran through hits as well as lesser known songs ranging from Like A Feather to Keep Pushin’ to Everybody Got Their Something to Nylon’s In A Rip to Loving You to Head First. Straying from previous tours, this time around, Costa eschewed the rock of numbers like On And On in favor of single-minded funk.

                         (Live at The Hamilton DC, May 27, 2012)

Coming to this show on the heels of a number of arena shows, I was absolutely steamrolled by the explosive energy onstage just 15 feet away. This wasn’t arena-rock posturing. This wasn’t pseudo-funk by virtue of a calculated minor-seventh chord. There wasn’t any question of whether that’s really her voice, or if they’re using backing tracks. This was funk, this was rock & roll the way it was meant to be played.

If you come to a Nikka Costa party, you better be ready to party. Costa made it clear very early on in the set that if you were the DC douchebag or baguette who was going to spend the entire evening ignoring the music but texting your friends about what a great time you were having, you were going to get called out individually. Call them out, she did. Costa made sure the groove was not confined to the stage, as she demanded that the dinner theater audience participate in the full-contact funk.

To talk about this show and not mention Costa’s band would be criminal. This band unabashedly channels The Family Stone and The Godfather of Soul’s JBs – and succeeds. Most notable was trombonist Elizabeth Lea – Maceo Parker would be proud.

If you ever get the chance, experience Nikka Costa…and leave your cell phone at home (trust me, you’re not that important!).

May 11, 2012

Give I’rrr Away, Give I’rrr Away, Give I’rrr Away Now

Twenty-eight years ago, if you saw a little band called Red Hot Chili Peppers at a club on the Sunset Strip, could you have guessed what they might be like three decades later?   In a word, NO.

At the Verizon Center on May 10, gone were displays of sock couture, drugs, off-key rap/singing, and sub-par P-Funk rip-offs. Instead, RHCP showed how they have evolved into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees who specialize in concise, catchy pop/rock songs; super-tight performances and displays of big-production Arena Rock; and boast a multi-generational audience.  

Unlike most bands of their vintage, RHCPs have deftly managed to avoid being relegated to a certain timeframe or genre of music. This transcendence is most obvious in the fact that new songs were greeted with the same enthusiasm and familiarity as the classic cuts. No one made a b-line to the hot dog or beer stands when they dared to play five songs off their new album. In fact, with the exception of the Stevie Wonder cover Higher Ground, their setlist comprised only songs post-Mother’s Milk. Let’s be honest, it was only beginning with Blood Sugar Sex Magick that the band hit their true stride, both in terms of songwriting and vocals (translation: Anthony Kiedis began singing in key). So it’s no surprise that the band chose wisely to ignore their older material. The audience certainly didn’t seem to mind.

               Red Hot Chili Peppers, Verizon Center, May 10, 2012

The band’s performance was flawless. While even the best of singers seem to lose the vocal fire they had in their youth, Anthony’s vocals seem to have an inverted trajectory - he sounds better now than he’s ever sounded before. Flea and Chad Smith are, hands-down, the best rhythm section in rock, and were also the obvious stars of the show. Their numerous instrumental jams peppered throughout the show were brazen displays of funk-driven virtuosity. New guitarist Josh Klinghoffer ably held his own, both on tracks from their latest, I’m With You, as well as on the more technically- and idiosyncratically-challenging John Frusciante guitar parts. Klinghoffer’s only challenge seemed to be with his guitar sound. Perhaps it was the result of where I was sitting or maybe just acoustic problems inherent in a cavernous hockey arena, but his guitars often seemed to get lost against the mix of the rhythm section. Nevertheless, augmented by a keyboardist and percussionist, the band sounded as fully-realized as they do on their Rick Rubin-produced albums. 

Physically, like most bands that still record and tour 30 years on, RHCP seem perpetually young. They’re still closer to their youthful Simpsons cartoon incarnation, than a group in which three-fourths of the members turn 50 years old this year. Anthony still resembles a young, better-looking Iggy Pop…albeit, with a disturbing mustache and a Kate Gosselin-meets-Hitler haircut. Flea still retains the appearance and physique of Sting’s uglier younger brother, and Chad Smith – recently, of Chickenfoot fame – still remains Will Ferrell’s doppelganger.

…So with the compliments out of the way…

As good as the band was technically, there was just an ever-so-mild sense of super-professionalism, over-rehearsal, and perfection at the expense of fun and feel. In particular, Anthony seemed to exude this vibe. It didn’t help that his banter with the audience was minimal. He seemed to show up, perform his job to perfection, and exit the stage quietly without fanfare before the final jam of the night.  

Next time, perhaps just a bit more cartoonish fun, Anthony?…