Ides of March at Schermerhorn

Music City Review Goes to War (and Leaves the Funk in Peace)

The lights were already dimmed as I raced in after seeking my reserved parking space in an apparently nonexistent parking lot. The Latino singer was midway through the first verse of “Please Release Me.” Say what? What was this 1949 country ballad doing here? It had been made famous by the likes of Kitty Wells and Engelbert Humperdinck. And people were clapping on the one and three!

Stopping short, I checked with an usher in a neat afro to make sure I was in the right place. Being of an age to have grooved to War back in the day, she smiled wryly, understanding my surprise, and reassured me that, yes, this was the right place. Still, there was some, shall we say, doubt.

There’s often an internal battle in seeing groups from the Seventies revive after decades of musical dormancy. Will we witness the musical version of an immaculate Sleeping Beauty coming out of her coma or will we see the shredded swaddling clothes of The Mummy? Will there be a sad vision of old guys trying to relive the glory days? Will there be cracked voices in neglected bodies? Will all the old solos that used to be fresh be stale because they’re exactly the same?

Leroy “Lonnie” Jordan

Not in any way, shape, or form. All fears about War went up in a haze of smoke (not that kind—LOL) as the seven-member Funk band busted into “Me and Baby Brother.” (Yes, yes, yes, when I’m writing about the Symphony, I’d say “burst” but we’re in a different musical language now, so when in Rome, or in this case LA…). This hit from the Seventies had heads bobbing, hips swinging, and the beat? The beat was back where it belonged on the two and four.

Leroy “Lonnie” Jordan, the only original member of War remaining, led his battalion from the center stage keyboard. Behind him, drummers Marcos Reyes on congas and timbales and Salvador Rodriguez on drum kit kept the troops in line. Both have been with the band since the Nineties. In the front, flanking Jordan, were more recent members: Mitch Kashmar on harmonica (aka harp), paired with Scott Martin on tenor sax to the left, and James Zota Baker on rhythm and lead guitars to the right. To the rear, guarding their six-pack of funk was Rene Camacho on bass. Camacho’s stints with Tito Puente and Celia Cruz meshed perfectly with Reyes, Rodriguez, and Jordan in recreating War’s signature Latin-flavored Soul music.

Following “Baby Brother,” War slid right on into a set of past hits: “Slipping Into Darkness,” “Cisco Kid,” “Spill the Wine,” and the lazy summer day ballad “All Day Music.” These were musicians. Their technical skills and voices were in peak condition. Lonnie could float up into a falsetto that would tempt Eddie Kendrick’s attention in heaven’s mezzanine. Each song had something vibrant and new, like the more sensuous flute solo in “Spill the Wine” with its bossa nova vibe. War proved that these players are still growing, still evolving—not dead yet.

The fusion of Funk, Jazz, Gospel, Salsa and more, revitalized tunes that were already quintessential Funk. The tenor sax and harp were an unexpectedly effective blend, as both could go way down low into Chicago Blues and rise back up into rocking Soul. So there was no surprise when Baker inserted a bit of Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” on one of the three guitars he kept on stage or when both Rodriguez (drums) and Camacho (bass) got Jazz-length solos. Reye’s thumping congas energized the audience and the two most Latin pieces “Cisco” and “Ballero.”

This group of mature men in an array of hats, from the classic pork pie to the beanie, didn’t walk away from their age, they didn’t try to squeeze into worn leather vests, they didn’t knock mics this way and that. Lonnie, in his seventies, joked about the Seventies when his pals “me, myself, and I” were all up to something. He made references to Star Trek and quipped about current forgetfulness, once breaking into a beautiful couple of phrases from Billy Joel’s “I Love You Just the Way You Are,” then catching himself, impishly saying “Oops, wrong song,” then chillin’ back into the classic Latin-Funk-Western menudo “Cisco Kid.” Ahhh, the tang of that cowbell, the spice of those timbales…

That’s the real joy of Seventies bands like War, Tower of Power and Earth, Wind and Fire. They were more about the music than the spectacle. They always loved and respected (and skillfully played) diverse musical styles with diverse players, forming a community of music, joy, and that groove, that gut-level groove that couldn’t help but get the audience bumping and swaying for “Low Rider” and staying there for the ultimate anthem to community, “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” Of all the performances I’ve attended in Nashville, from Bluegrass in the Ryman, to the Stones at Bridgestone, War is the group that got the most audience members up off their seats and onto their feet. War was the bomb, in all the best ways. Peace prevailed. We were new friends of all ages smiling all the way back to our cars. And in times like these, that spells victory.

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