all words: Colin Wilhelm
It’s a shame that (almost) no one outside of the greater Washington area has heard of go-go. Perhaps it’s because most go-go recordings (that I’ve heard…aside from Chuck Brown’s own 2002 live album You Game…Live at the 9:30 Club) fail to convey the energy at the soul of D.C.’s peculiar musical genre.
All that being said, Chuck Brown’s (hurricane-delayed) 75th birthday party at the 9:30 Club on Sunday put that live-wire energy on display.
Funk/hip-hop/everything openers Black Alley Band (not to be confused with preeminent go-go-ers the Backyard Band) tapped into that energy during their set, despite a few missteps early on. Their late set, crowd-pleasing rendition of Brown’s staple, “Wind Me Up Chuck” (complete with the “Also Sprach Zarathustra” riff) raised the roof and then set it on fire with a transition to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA”, of all songs. I half expected Biggie Smalls lyrics to be interpolated into it, a la the mashup that people have probably heard more than the original, but Black Alley instead progressively funkified the song with each new verse. In addition to some original songs sprinkled here and there, those were by far their best of many covers during the night, however, they had one particularly bad one: their inexplicable closing song of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The song wasn’t bad because they played it poorly, but rather they had a chance to take it in an interesting direction, maybe go-go-ify it and make it their own, and instead…played it exactly how it sounds on Nevermind, but with female lead vocals (the excellent, earthquake-hipped Kacee). That one minor quibble aside, they otherwise set the table nicely for the main event.
The Godfather of Go-Go came out on stage to be welcomed by several front-row letter-writers, in addition to a roaring 9:30 Club crowd. After thanking everyone for coming, Brown opened with one of his classics, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (Without that Go-Go Swing)”, a tribute to D.C. music past and present. Despite his now advanced age, Brown still has his silky smooth, Cheshire cat’s meow voice, which was on showcase throughout much of the first half of the show. Brown went through many of his other staples, like “Feel Like Movin’ That Body” and “Hoochie Coochie Man”.
The second half featured an ever-growing cast of guest appearances, including Backyard Band’s Anwan Glover, forever known as Slim Charles to fans of “The Wire”. Two of Brown’s adult children guest-vocaled multiple songs and proved the apple does not fall far from the tree; his daughter in particular displayed a shared interest in flamboyant appearance, as she wore movie star sunglasses and leopard print pants to go with her bright red hair. [There were many other guest stars, including a terrific female vocalist who elicited the biggest crowd reaction, but I unfortunately couldn’t make out any names, if they were announced, and am still a relative neophyte in go-go.]
Throughout the show, and especially with the guest artists, the Soul Searchers played sections or full covers of rap and hip-hop songs, including an impressively transitioned fun-sized sample of Ester Dean’s “Drop it Low”. Go-go’s covers and samples have always been interesting, even the ones that flop, because they’re done live, with little to no electronic help. They’re somewhat ironic in Brown’s case because of his subtle influence on hip-hop: he may be one of the most sampled musicians out there, and you can hear elements of go-go in many more rap and hip-hop songs. Wale, of course, Amerie’s “1 Thing” may be the most popular go-go song of the last decade, Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” is Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” sped up a little bit, etc. This (sort of) disproves my initial point: people across the country have heard go-go, and like it, they just haven’t heard of it.
Though Brown made sure to mention, “I still ain’t ready to retire”, the show felt a little like a go-go/funk “Last Waltz”, with Brown often fading into the background, like a good bandleader, to let his guests, or his energetic and entertaining brass section, take over the songs built on a bedrock of drums, congas, keys, and assorted random percussion. Despite his polite deferrals, everyone knew whom the night was built around. “[This is the] greatest birthday party I have ever had,” Brown said and thanked the crowd again for coming out.