I’ve seen a lot of concerts. Like, really a lot — probably thousands. And I can count on two hands the shows that stopped me in my tracks and made me think I was seeing something totally unique. Bands like Nirvana, Björk, Beck, the Flaming Lips, Daft Punk and the White Stripes have blown me away live like that.
I wasn’t expecting to have my mind blown last night when I went to a local-music awards show put on by Cincinnati’s weekly paper, CityBeat. But this year’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards were also a tribute to King Records. If you’ve never heard of it (and, assuming you didn’t grow up in Cincinnati, you probably haven’t), King was a pioneering Queen City label that, from 1943-1971, cranked out some of the most important blues, funk and bluegrass albums in music history, all the while providing the music scene with a house band that was as comfortable backing James Brown as it was laying down hot licks for bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
A historical marker was laid in honor of King over the weekend, after years of attempts to save the label’s original plant. Led by caustic music mogul Syd Nathan, King’s roster not only boasted such bluegrass pioneers as Webb Pierce and Stanley, but also R&B and blues acts like Little Willie John, Hank Ballard, the Platters, the Ink Spots, Lonnie Johnson, Albert King, John Lee Hooker and James Brown, who launched his career on King in 1956 with his signature song, “Please, Please, Please.”
You might not know the original versions, but surely you’ve heard the popular covers of King songs that are part of rock history, from Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” (originally cut by Ballard) to Peggy Lee’s “Fever” (first recorded by John) and the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” tune “Man of Constant Sorrow” (originally popularized by the Stanley Brothers).
Right, but back to what blew my mind. The night started out with a set from Cincinnati native and former Brown sideman (and the only dude who can get away with leather bell-bottom pants and a matching top hat) bass player Bootsy Collins, who was backed by a number of King vets, including his brother, Catfish; Brown’s widow and backup singer, Tomi Rae Hynie; Brown’s longtime MC and the man in charge of the late funkateer’s “cape routine,” Danny Ray; as well as the only Soul Brother Number One-sanctioned impersonator, “Little James Brown.”
Wearing what could only have been a custom silver lamé jacket and matching vest, with a Jheri curl that dripped down to the middle of his back, the faux Brown was off the hook, hitting all the right vocal screeches on tunes like “Soul Power” and whipping out the daring dance moves that you’d expect from a Brown show — and then he really busted loose.
Though he looked to easily be in his late 40s or early 50s, midway through a fat funk jam, the fake Brown leaned forward onto his hands and did a front flip. What? Then he ran offstage, ran back on and skidded across the floor on the top of his head, into another flip! I looked at my pal Tommy and yelled, “I totally did not see that coming!” To top it off, the Brown look-alike unleashed his final trick, a flip into a full-on split. Unreal. Now that’s showmanship the Godfather would appreciate, I thought.
I was still shaking my head a couple of hours later when my mind was blown again. I’d never seen the 82-year-old Stanley live. The diminutive singer, who said he’d just gotten out of the hospital, took the stage in a white cowboy hat and black Nudie-style suit with spangly white lapels and shining silver buttons on his crisp white shirt. Eerily set aglow from behind with spinning blue lights and flanked by a six-piece band, all wearing matching white cowboy hats, Stanley cut a ghostly presence onstage as his hoarse vocals rose above the lightning-fast banjo and guitar picking.
You often hear the hack phrase “You could hear a pin drop,” but midway through the Stanley set, it felt like you could actually hear hearts beating. With his band standing down, Stanley stepped up to the microphone to perform an a cappella version of the already haunting “O Death,” his dry-leaf bullfrog croak of a voice betraying all the pain and suffering of the song’s praying-for-a-reprieve lyrics as the hipster crowd looked on in awe. Granted, there was no heat in the frosty, still-under-renovation Emery Theater last night, but that’s not what gave me the spidery chill I suspect most people were feeling for those two and a half minutes. Any man, or woman, who can appear to stop time with just their voice is one worth listening to.
Despite all the shows I’ve gone to over the years, I suspect the sense memory of Ralph Stanley up there pleading into the black void will stay with me for a long, long time.