LIVE: Art Don’t Sleep – That 70s Soul, The Mayan Theater (LA)

Two sets of soul music with guest appearances and cameos by legends, That 70s Soul lasted until nearly 1 a.m. on a school night. This was my first Art Don’t Sleep, the Andrew Lojero promoted/Miguel Atwood-Ferguson music-directed event, with themes ranging from World Jazz to East Side Story. This was a soul music event. The crowd, ranging from soul music fans to hip-hop heads to the typical LA Music hipsters, stood with their jaws dropped and ears in amazement at various points of the night.

I walked in the Mayan Theater to Questlove spinning soul beats, breaks, and instrumentals. I didn’t recognized most of the songs, since the vocals were mostly left out, or maybe because I have somewhat gave up my beatdigging/vinyl collecting days. The music hummed at a background level. It was loud enough to be heard, but not so loud where you couldn’t converse with the person next to you.

The first set started with the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (MAF) ensemble’s version of “We Live In Brooklyn, Baby” by Roy Ayers. The full band contained four vocalists, a full horn section, a percussionist, a DJ, a traditional drummer behind a drum kit, a bassist, a keyboardist, a guitar player, and MAF himself on the cello and directing the music. The beginning of the first set, filled with sample-based semi-obscure soul and 70s contemporary jazz, continued with Tarika Blue’s “Dreamflower,” the Rotary Connection’s “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun,” and Gary Bartz’s “Celestial Blues.” I was hoping for “Music Is My Sanctuary,” but the band continued their trip into 1970’s soul, with guests such as Alice Russell and Leon Ware, the latter sang his most famous composition, “I Want You.” MAF’s background singers took their time in the spotlight with songs such as “Killing Me Softly,” “Freddie’s Dead,” and “As.” Periodically throughout the night, community radio station KCRW’s Garth Trinidad presented a certificate of recognition by the City of Los Angeles to the legends, which included Leon Ware, Shuggie Otis, Sly Stone, and Bill Withers.

My highlight of the first set was Steve Spacek, looking like Billy Ocean’s cooler cousin, singing a flawless take of Billy Paul’s “Let the Dollar Circulate.” The crowd went crazy with Marie Daulne’s version of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and then the women standing around me got strangely excited as Seu Jorge came on stage in a tux with sunglasses, and sang a sparse Brazilian track to close out the first set.

Already, one and a half hour into the show, forty percent of the crowd left at intermission. Those who stayed were treated to better known 1970s songs, with more cameos and performances from legends. The second set started off with the ensemble’s rendition of Bob James’ heavily sampled “Nautilus.” A fifty year old lady in a group I befriended commented that the selected tracks are mostly samples, and that she would like to hear other 1970s tracks, even some of the hits from the era. We discussed how different generations listen to 1970s music. She commented that she vividly remember living in the period, while two other women in their early 40s talked about growing up as children with the songs played in their homes.

Personally, I would have loved to hear some soulful underground disco cuts like Black Ivory’s “Mainline,” or Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl, You Need a Change of Mind.” I think MAF’s ensemble would have killed it. The second set included Alice Russell’s version of “Love and Happiness.” I appreciated her voice, and the fifty year old lady said, “She’s like a Teena Marie.” I laughed. If Art Don’t Sleep would have brought Lisa Stansfield to do a Barry White medley – I probably would have lost my mind. MAF’s ensemble did do a magnificent version of “I’ll Be There,” with Atwood-Ferguson’s cello playing the lead as the crowd sang the lyrics. The audience, simultaneously lost control and stared in awkward amazement, as Sly Stone joined his daughter Novena Carmel on stage for “If You Want Me to Stay.” He tried to sing a few bars. It did not sound good, but the sight of the reclusive singer was enough for most of the crowd.

Steve Spacek returned for his rendition of “Footsteps in the Dark.” Coco of Quadron sang “A Song For You.” I don’t know how I feel about the song. It is beautiful, but it can get  drawn out and overwrought at times. At past midnight on a Sunday, the audience could  have used those aforementioned underground disco cuts.

As the crowd was slowing losing energy, Shuggie Otis appeared. His presence put a charge into the crowd. If Leon Ware is understated subtle pimp cool, Shuggie is an eccentric genius. He fidgeted with his guitar; wanting to make sure the sound was just right. He was not aloof or arrogant, but rather, with Shuggie – it is about his art. He is an artist, and damn it, he was gonna do it his way. He waited until the amp and his guitar sounded just right. It was worth it. His two-song guest spot, which started with “Aht Uh Mi Hed,” and concluded with “Strawberry Letter Number 23,” mesmerized the remaining crowd. Most of us simply stared at the stage in hypnotic amazement at the near flawless performance, as he soloed on his guitar at the end of the latter song, which seemed to lingered forever. I felt blessed to see him in his element and was glad that I missed his technical difficulties filled show last week. Writing this review, I can still hear the sonic perfection of his voice, his guitar, and the backing ensemble.

Seu Jorge entered the stage next, still rocking the sunglasses. Two of the women near me rushed to the floor area to get a closer look. The pretty curly haired girl in a green hat about five feet from me goes, “That’s the guy from……” “City of God,” I said. “Yeah,” she smiled. I thought, “Damn, Seu Jorge got some charisma.” He held the audience in his hands even before he even sang any note of “Everybody’s Love the Sunshine.” The show closed with Marie Daulne’s version of “Walk on By,” and afterwards, all of the guest stars went back on stage for a bow.  Art Don’t Sleep does put on quite an interesting production of sounds and personality. Their events are something that all music heads have to experience. That 70s Soul was filled with interesting sights and sounds, and after a long night, I was exhausted. Art don’t sleep, but at the end, I was a bit sleep deprived. At least there was no traffic, Sunday shows are a good idea, after all.