Excuse the potential blasphemy, but if God has a singing voice, He would probably sound like Curtis Mayfield. The late Chicago soul singer and songwriter possessed a gospel-trained falsetto that was one of pop music’s most angelic, an instrument that even for the secular among us seemed a manifestation of the divine. An incisive lyricist, Mayfield was one of the first R&B artists to infuse his work with socio-political commentary. His blend of social consciousness and spiritual harmonies became a crucial soundtrack to the civil rights struggle throughout the 1960s (when he led the Chicago vocal trio the Impressions, responsible for standards like “Gypsy Woman,” “It’s Alright,” “I’m So Proud,” “Keep On Pushing,” and “People Get Ready”) and into the 1970s, where a successful solo career was punctuated by his electrifying soundtrack to the film Superfly, featuring such funk classics as “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead,” and the title track. Relatively small in physical stature, he was a true musical giant who passed away far too young at age 57 in 1999, never having fully recovered from a tragic 1990 accident when a lighting tower fell on him during a Brooklyn concert and left him paralyzed from the neck down.
In honor of what would have been Mayfield’s 70th year, the Lincoln Center Festival commissioned “Here But I’m Gone,” a tribute concert featuring an all-star roster of vocalists – including the surviving Impressions, 77-year-old Sam Gooden and 71-year-old Fred Cash – performing in front of a crack big band of more than 18 musicians (replete with bountiful horn and string sections and Dr. Lonnie Smith on Hammond B3 organ). Under the musical direction of Binky Griptite, the guitarist of Brooklyn retro-soul outfit the Dap-Kings, the house band infused the musty oldies-revue format – now a familiar PBS pledge-drive staple – with an irresistible energy that caused most in the building to dance in their seats (and even had a tuxedoed Avery Fisher Hall usher unable to stop himself singing “People Get Ready” as he moved down the aisle). Musically there was barely a false note over the entire course of the evening, aside from the curious omission of “Superfly.” One could quibble that, sure, Impressions current lead singer Reggie Torian’s falsetto wasn’t quite the equal to Mayfield’s, but it hardly seems fair to compare a mere man to a soul immortal. Indeed, the show’s only real stumble was sartorial: On a night resplendent with flashy matching suits for the old-timers and hep blazers and porkpies for the younger cats, TV On the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone apparently didn’t get the dress-code tweet and performed their version of “Kung Fu” in less-than-kickin’ t-shirts.
Keeping with Mayfield’s activist spirit, Mavis Staples interrupted her rendition of “This Is My Country” to offer some political commentary of her own. “What’s up with these folks going around denigrating our president?” she asked the cheering crowd. “Saying that he’s not a legal resident?” Referring to the signs of Tea Party protesters proclaiming “We’re Gonna Take Our Country Back,” she remarked, “Back to where? The Fifties? The Sixties? I ain’t never going back to the back of the bus! Never!”
In addition to R&B veterans like Staples and fellow Stax alum William Bell, the concert featured a mix of neo-soul stalwarts like Meshell Ndegeocello, Aloe Blacc and Bilal (whose version of “Give Me Your Love” was a standout) with impressive newcomers like Ryan Montbleau (who delivered a husky take on “Here But I’m Gone”) and Inyang Bassey (who shone throughout “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”). Sinéad O’Connor, sporting a priest’s clerical shirt and collar with camouflage pants, transformed two of Mayfield’s somewhat lesser known mid-1970s compositions, “Jesus” and “Billy Jack,” into the most rousing performances of the night. Her eyes hidden by shades and her skull freshly shaven, she rocked from side to side with an Eminem-like intensity, her soaring vocals spurring the crowd to leap to their feet. Soon they were banging their heads, courtesy of an apocalyptically incendiary version of “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” performed by the Roots drummer Questlove, guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas, and tuba player Damon Bryson. With Questlove’s echo-laden incantations booming between drum fills while Bryson squawked and Douglas soloed, the song imagined the results of a hypothetical jam session between Jimi Hendrix and John Philip Sousa. The night culminated with a revue-style encore, the entire lineup participating in a collective soul-stirring rendition of “Move On Up,” ending the show with the kind of uplifting note that any true payment of respect to Curtis Mayfield’s positive force certainly demanded.