The non-profit group Working Californians put together an unbeatable lineup of old-school legends for its 2015 edition of Nightshift, an annual Labor Day party in Exposition Park to benefit local working people.
Early afternoon temperatures forced most people to seek out shade wherever it could be found. But despite the heat, the funky sounds of James Andrews’ band resonated through the park, and got folks up and dancing early in the proceedings. We got inside around the time guitarist Leo Nocentelli of the Meters was leading the band through “Cissy Strut”, one of N.O.’s unofficial anthems, followed by appearances from Cyril Neville and zydeco singer Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. New Orleans music encompasses such a huge number of distinct styles, yet there’s a shared sensibility that links the soulful ballads sung by Stephanie Jordan with the Meters’ offbeat instrumental funk, the rollicking, insistent piano of Professor Longhair, whose “Tipitina” was covered by Neville, and the traditional swamp country sound of zydeco. Andrews clearly had it in mind to put together a jukebox band that could play it all, and he did his work well. Wrapping up with a group singalong on “Hey Pocky A’way” that saw audience members swinging handkerchiefs in perfect rhythm, it was a rowdy, joyous start to the afternoon.
The Wailers, of course, still perform a set composed mainly of Bob Marley’s greatest hits, with a few slightly lesser-known tracks thrown in here and there, with not one, but two Bob-looking guys at the front of the stage. They seem to have split vocal chores according to style – the shorter, stockier singer is better at the shouted chanting stuff, while the taller one with the guitar has the more melodious phrasing. Between the two of them, it sounds pretty good, and if only one of the people on stage – bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett – actually played with Bob Marley in the 70s, the younger guns in the band are at least carrying on the tradition at a high level. They have that laid-back yet insistent feel of Marley’s albums. And it turns out, this is very good summer-BBQ music, perfect for listening while sipping a drink in the shade with a bunch of other folks at a picnic, swaying in the afternoon’s first hint of a breeze.
Sheila E used the occasion as an opportunity to shoot a new video, performing two versions of “I Just Want To See You On The Dance Floor.” She was backed by a full crew of pop-and-lockers as cameras rolled. Sheila is on a creative roll lately, having released a strong set of new songs on her new album Icon, and putting together a top-notch touring band that includes longtime collaborator Eddie M on saxophone and former Bride Of Funkadelic Lynn Mabry on backing vocals. Her festival set featured a heavy dose of the new material, along with her best known work from the 80s — a sparking version of “A Love Bizarre” early in the set, and a show-closing romp through “Erotic City”, “The Belle Of St. Mark” and “The Glamorous Life.” When I first saw this band, I remember thinking they would be a perfect complement to a P-Funk show, and I turned out to be right.
By the time Parliament-Funkadelic hit the stage with “The Mothership Connection,” the air had cooled and the audience’s energy level had noticeably heightened. As usual, the band let fly in their loosey-goosey manner for the next 90 minutes, bleeding from one track to another without much regard for standard arrangements. George Clinton’s voice is shot, and he functions largely as a master of ceremonies for the assembled crew of players and singers. This lineup released a new album just last year, First Ya Gotta Shake The Gate, and the new material felt like a logical enough update – some hip-hop inspiration flowing back to a crew that first inspired hip-hop. But the most enthusiastic audience response came for their usual dance-floor fillers, “Flash Light”, “Give Up The Funk” and “Atomic Dog,” which, when you think about it, is just about the greatest 1-2-3 punch you could ever be handed at a funk show. I mean, after all that, if you ain’t gonna get it on, take your dead ass home. Seriously.
Local food vendors were in attendance, with tasty, perfectly slow-cooked ribs from the Smoke House BBQ, po-boy style deli sandwiches from Orleans & York Deli (although their trademark fried seafood was AWOL), and fresh, moist cupcakes from Big Man Bakes. Lots of attendees came prepared with coolers on wheels, and matching seat and umbrella sets, creating mini-encampments on the lawn. Blues-festival regulars know how to prepare for such events, and with general admission tickets being sold as low as $15 on the day, it was a perfect opportunity to make the most of an afternoon without going broke. I’ll be looking forward to next year’s lineup announcement. This working people-centered event seems like a great idea that could become a beloved tradition.
Pictures at Nightshift 2015 Labor Day Party:Photo Essay