The Headhunters Club Metronome
January 20, 2006
What's it mean for a band to cook? If you heard the current lineup of The Headhunters on the Vermont stop of their abbreviated winter tour, you'd know. For the better part of their close to two hours on the cramped upstairs stage at Club Metronome, the notes of melodies rang true while each beat in the rhythms the quintet played resonated and reverberated.
Led by drummer extraordinaire Mike Clark and voluble percussionist Bill summers, once and future Headhunters from their days with the original lineup of the band as assembled by Herbie Hancock, this lineup does the legacy proud. It even extends the reach of the concept of the group as envisioned by the veteran keyboardist (here spelled by Jerry Z from Melvin Sparks' group), as the presence of saxophonist Donald Harrison, an alumnus of The Jazz Messengers, adds a palpable streak of traditional jazz to the ultra- funky contemporary mix.
It wasn't just Clark, lightning wrist rolls and seemingly impossibly syncopations, overshadowed (and occasionally fully drowned out, but to no great detriment) by the presence of the Meters' George Porter Jr. on bass though: the size and strength of The Meters' bassist tested the sound system in the Burlington club. Clean and clear for the openers Absinthe Minded, who tendered a flavorful mix of deep R&B and Philly soul, the expanse of audio broadened perceptibly as the Headhunters played, due in large part to Porter' intricate yet muscular basswork.
It never got any better than the first half-hour of the set however, the momentum lagging as the group went into some overly-extended vocalizing that would've better been left at half its length or less. Or perhaps confined strictly to the upbeat chant that was "Get Out of My Life Woman; on a tribute to the recently-deceased Wilson Pickett, in the form of a truncated version of "Mustang Sally, the Headhunters might well have picked right up where "Watermelon Man," as the opener, left off.
Twasn't to be, but the reworked Hancock standard was a marvel in itself. With Summers invoking the muse using a beer bottle (?!) as a wind instrument, the band sounded almost as strong, in solos and duets, as when playing as a tightly-knit unit. Almost as if to demonstrate how they arranged the song, breaking down the parts almost heightened the mystery of how it all worked together, rather than diminish it. Yet it also gave Jerry Z a chance to prove how tasteful he could play, never attempting to outdo the work of the master Hancock.
The absence of other selections from the Headhunters discography, was curious unless you consider the fact this lineup, none of whom appeared with Hancock at Bonnaroo 2005 in a similarly named group, was more intent on updating their sound rather than literally recapturing it. Nevertheless, the inclusion of such numbers as "Butterfly or "Actual Proof (the latter the title of a solo album and something of a signature song for Clark in recent years) to "Sly could've made for a truly great night of improvisation. But this was more of a dance party than a recital.
Accordingly, Summers spoke disparagingly of the previous night's gig in Boston commenting how the venue and its audience was simply too dignified and restrained for its own good. Such was not the case in front of the close to two-hundred bobbing and weaving constantly to the sound of thunder (Porter) and lightning (Clark) above Main Street this nearly-balmy mid-winter evening in the Green Mountains. To hear the Headhunters this night was to enjoy music purely for its own sake, no more and no less sublime for the lack of artifice in its presentation.
Mike Clark by Heavy Pack
George Porter Jr. by GoWiggle/Michelle Sammartino