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Live Reviews

North Sea Jazz Festival 2008, Day 1-3

By Published: July 31, 2008
Unfortunately there was no time for the full Led Bib enlightenment, as people were flocking to see Herbie Hancock and his elite quintet on the Hudson stage. Dave Holland (bass), Chris Potter (sax), Lionel Loueke (guitar) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) joined the legendary keysman for a thorough workout of the standard funk repertoire. It was highly enjoyable to behold Potter tearing through solos on a selection of familiar tunes, with the exception of Loueke's complicated composition "17" (yes, it has 17 beats), but one couldn't help thinking Hancock might have been more ambitious in his choices. The capacity crowd went mad for the likes of "Cantaloupe Island," "Watermelon Man" and "Chameleon," which were delivered in expected fine style, but many will have been disappointed not to see something more exploratory from a man with such a rich history of innovation. The closest they got to post-bop was Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." Holland stood out with a long, lyrical introduction on his own, and Hancock's harmonically cryptic solo was somewhat spoiled by heavy-handed clumsiness from Colaiuta, who is an incredible funk drummer but seems to lack a subtler side. Hancock was also guilty of indulging in keytar duels with Loueke and Potter (the latter of which he most certainly lost) and didn't seem able to keep hands off his rather cheap-sounding synth. But it definitely wasn't a bad gig by any means and, bearing in mind Hancock's recent slant towards the mainstream market, it probably wasn't a great surprise either.

Another father figure of funk, bassist Bootsy Collins, was due to finish the night in the Nile arena—a vast standing space with tiered seating at the sides. The gig was an extremely bizarre experience for several reasons. First of all, before Collins even got on stage, the audience was treated to lengthy semantics from a series of sideshow acts which hadn't been listed on the festival itinerary. A dancing three-piece singing skewed mashups of James Brown tunes was followed by an indiscernible rapper and a relatively decent instrumental funk group. It emerged that the whole event was conceived as a tribute to the Godfather of Soul himself—a credible notion in principle. However, a woefully dire performance from a lady named Vicki Anderson (apparently a former JB backing singer), whose voice sounded like fingernails scraping down a chalkboard, pushed patience to its limit. Collins had still not materialised, and there was a feeling that only his appearance could restore a semblance of dignity to proceedings.

It didn't. Collins finally came out but, rather than stepping forward to lead a storming set of original material, stood back as an impostor James Brown took the spotlight. Indeed, someone pretending to be the deceased King of Funk. He wasn't a bad singer, but anyone trying to imitate Brown's towering talent and unique stage presence is bound to fail. And, as if it couldn't have got any weirder, Brown's controversial widow, Tomi Rae Hynie, was next on stage to deliver a couple more horribly out-of-tune covers. It was time to leave.

Admirable as it is to honour James Brown the musical legend, questions must be raised about the way it was attempted. The whole spectacle was, quite frankly, a crass parody. It seemed like a bad dream. As a man who was famed for high standards and relentless pursuit of musical perfection, Brown must be turning in his grave. It looked like a cheap shot on the part of former colleagues to make as much money as possible from his legacy. But, even so, why did it have to be done in such a tactless, unethical manner? Perhaps the most disturbing, lamentable fact is that Collins and trombonist Fred Wesley, who also performed, have compromised their own values and integrity in associating with such a terrible production. It really was an insult to the memory of the great JB: he deserves better.

Day 2—Saturday, July 12

Pat Metheny

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