As the audience filed out of the DeSoto Civic Center early Monday morning, Frankie Beverly, leader of the ’70s funk band Maze, had one last parting gift for his fans. With the auditorium quickly emptying and the lights coming on, Beverly rallied his band for one last serenade.
“You are my sunshine. You brighten up my life,” crooned Beverly as his band churned out a quiet storm groove. “I just want to thank you.”
Rhythm-and-blues fans also had plenty to be thankful for Sunday at the Pre-Thanksgiving Music Festival, featuring Maze and fellow genre standouts Babyface and Charlie Wilson along with newcomer Arika Kane. More than 7,000 people turned out for the five-hour-plus concert, which, musically, may have been the best pop music experience the Mid-South has experienced all year. With artists whose work spans more than three decades, the show at times seemed like a survey of the history of R&B. But its sheer vitality and depth of feeling proved that, though hip hop may reign now, classic R&B music is very much alive and well and dancing.
Maze, formed by Beverly 33 years ago, has scored only a handful of hits, but is a near legend for frequent and marathon-length shows. Sunday’s performance showed why they have earned such a formidable reputation. You would be hard pressed to find a tighter, funkier bunch than this eight-piece unit.
From the opening, syncopated rhythms of “Laid Back Girl” (from the band’s last studio record, Back To Basic, made a shocking 16 years ago) to the climactic rendition of “Before I Let You Go,” they combined both suppleness and endurance to make a case for Maze as the ultimate dance party band.
In contrast, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds came into the DeSoto Civic Center with a suitcase full of hits — a staggering 70 No. 1 records to his credit as either singer, producer, or songwriter, according to the night’s emcee, Atlanta comedian Lightfoot. But the singer has no renown as a live performer. That could change should he choose to focus on a touring career.
With a small four-piece band, Babyface delivered a compelling, jazzy set that included solo hits like “Whip Appeal” as well as a long medley of songs he wrote for others such as Bobby Brown and Boyz II Men.
Almost upstaging both of them, however, was Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson. Drug free for 15 years and fit following a recent battle with cancer, Uncle Charlie, 56, gave a commanding and energetic performance combining some of the old-school showmanship of artists like Otis Redding with a modern musical sensibility.
Wilson did revisit the Gap Band’s classic funk oeuvre— his reworking of “Early In the Morning” was a stand-out of the night — but he mostly showcased newer material, such as collaborations with friend Snoop Dogg like “Beautiful” and solo tracks like “There Goes My Baby” off his recently released fourth disc, Uncle Charlie.
The future of R&B, meanwhile, was represented on the night by Arika Kane, whose brief, Mariah Carey-influenced opening set, devoid of any of the bells and whistles of the headliners — save for Kane’s own skin-tight, silver jumpsuit — revealed a raw talent on the verge.