All Aboard! Charlie Wilson Shows Off Expansive ‘Party Train’ Tour with Kem and Joe
Charlie Wilson, Kem and Joe bring their “grown folks’ music” to BJCC Legacy Arena
A rare occurrence with the majority of R&B concerts is to start the show on time. That myth was shattered when R&B survivor Charlie Wilson and his delicate opening acts, smooth crooner Kem and 20-year veteran/modern-day comeback kid Joe, arrived in Birmingham, Alabama for the “Forever Charlie” tour [named after Wilson’s 2015 album]. It startled me more, as I naturally assumed the gig would start late and that maybe a few unlisted openers were probably going to hit the stage. Exactly at 7:00 pm, Joe – a former Alabamian – hits the stage to sing a few of his memorable hits (“All the Things (Your Man Won’t Do),” “I Wanna Know”) and some of his more recent material. I was still fighting through the tardy traffic fighting to get inside the BJCC Legacy Arena to witness the action and could hear the echoes of a delicate Joe – still in good voice – rousing the crowd.
At 7:55, Kem’s band took the stage and opens up with “Love Calls.” Supported by a six-piece band and three backing singers, the silky soul crooner jumped on stage wearing a fitted black suit and tie. He crawled through his Urban AC catalog and turned the super-sized arena into a plush intimate soul lounge. “Nobody,” a midtempo gem using the grace of Frankie Beverly, was pleasantly giving oozing bass lines and super-stacked harmonies. “Share My Love” allowed him to plead like a desperate lover seeking admiration. The oceanic and breezy “Why Would You Stay” allowed Kem to sit at the piano and serenade the crowd for a bit, before allowing Randy Goldman to do some hefty rock-angled guitar ripping. “See, that is grown folks’ music right there,” Kem commented.
At first, it proved hard to get the arena’s audience on their feet due to the consistent string of romantic slow jams. But the crowd, obviously eager to see the headliner in the flesh, warmed up to his presentation of sophisticated swagger. He first used humor to force the crowd to get more involved: “Man up here with his arms crossed. I bet he’s saying, ‘What kind of real man is called Kem? With these tight clothes…comes out, ain’t got no socks on. Looking all cosmopolitan.” And while celebrating all the lovely couples present, he immediately dashes through the crowd and lifts them up using slick charm, even getting the Southern gents to sing along to his song “Find My Way.” The smooth crooner even laughed off one crowd participant barring a gospel quartet rustic voice, saying he must have just come from church.
Like the gargantuan Wilson, Kem has no fear of praising God in his performances. “I never take the stage or leave the stage without giving a little praise, honor or glory to the one from whom all blessings flow.”
Knowing he was playing with a crowd from the Bible Belt, he started to get preachy by quoting familiar passages of scripture like “this too shall pass” and “all things work together for the good” as if he was a traveling evangelist. On the sly he reminded this critic and others about the old myth about R&B shows: “When I take the stage that means I got the money.”
After giving props to the big guy upstairs, Kem jumped into his most treasured hit hit single, 2005’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” before closing with his latest single, “Promise to Love.” Although still unfamiliar to some, the single showed off his finest moment as one of R&B’s bubbling-below-the-pop radar balladeers. In that moment, he sounded as if he was trying to reach Luther magnificence.
Exactly at 9:00, the party train was coming into the station. Charlie Wilson, the legend behind the Gap Band and now embarking one of the longest success stories in his solo career, bursts on the stage with air cannons and LED lasers propping up his big welcome. It appeared light years away from the pompous intros of the Gap Band’s heyday. Plus his intro anthem, “Party Train,” also lost some of his funky gusto as the new synth-driven makeover made it a bit unfamiliar to the ear. But Wilson, a veteran to the arena game, quickly found his mojo, showing off his soulful pipes and his prodigious Stevie Wonder-esque melisma act. “Early in the Morning” shifted into a short passage of Justin Timberlake-Snoop Dogg “Beautiful” and then sneaked into “Birthday Dress,” a new offering on Wilson’s 2015 disc. Features from that album were scattered through the evening, although with very little reception. That’s pretty unfortunate, since the reggae-lite “Unforgettable” and the inspirational-tinged “Touched By An Angel” showed off a better skill of song composition and execution, even compared with some of his bigger hits. He reminded the audience to pick up the new album, encouraging the old-school generation to “borrow your cousin’s laptop” to download the album.
After a quick wardrobe change, Wilson returns to the stage with sexy girl dancers tagged to his side with “Burn Rubber on Me.” The band played note-by-note, before a trip down funk’s memory lane. Playful exercises of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” Zapp’s “Doo Wa Ditty,” Sugar Hill Gang’s “Apache” and a sprint through Jackson 5’s “Dancing Machine” filled up an animated dance routine that brought the crowd to its feet. If there was a major improvement to Wilson’s live act it would definitely be the backing dancers. They had moves that fit the songs and didn’t feel like complicated stage distractions. Camera phones were also on full throttle as Wilson and his dancing machines worked through a Tron-inspired celebration of running LED lights while attached to their jackets.
Wilson quickly ran through his modern slow jams: “Charlie, Last Name Wilson,” “There Goes My Baby,” “You Are” and one of his latest, “Good Night Kisses.” A powerful jam session featuring his lead guitarist and saxophonist killed a little time as Wilson went for his third wardrobe change. When he returns, Wilson is ready to pour out gratitude. He’s thankful for being surrounding by positive people and is most thankful for Jesus. With Wilson dressed in angelic white and worshipful instrumental music in the background, he blasts “God is amazing.” The crowd responds with little emotion. They came to gobble Gap Band funk and probably had enough church on this Sunday. “I thought I had more church folk in here in Birmingham, Alabama,” he says, inciting an immediate reaction from the crowd. But suddenly a sound of galloping horses can be heard from the right side rafters and church is born: Holy Ghost power intervenes and turns the concert into a mini-revival; a super-bright smart phone candlelight vigil preps up Wilson’s campmeeting; “If I Believe,” his Grammy-nominated gospel song,” is finally executed, then comes a gospel-powered testimony breaking down his deliverance from alcohol and drugs. A praise break goes on for sixty seconds, until Wilson realizes he’s got more hits to play. The Isley-sounding “Yearning for Your Love” probably creates the greatest excitement from the crowd, turning almost every line into a mammoth sing-a-long. Then came “I Want to Be Your Man,” the Roger & Zapp song he guested on, which gave another shout-out to the late funk innovator.
Wilson, 62, still works a stage with a brand of youthfulness. He still sounds invigorated, inspired and motivated to perform. He canvasses the stage as if he’s in a marathon, showing off a good grade of health and fitness in his golden age. He makes fun of the younger generations (“Young man, who do you know from the ‘70s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s with hit records on the charts with the last name Wilson?”) and puts chivalry first in his raps (“The only thing you run in the house is the remote control. Let me call on the real persons that run the house. Ladies!”). This is what makes Charlie Wilson show so special. He’s survived the test of time and has enough hits to keep the attention of a crowd of thousands for two hours, maybe even three. And three was plenty of blatant omissions. There was no “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” the infectious “Oops Upside Your Head” (recently sampled in the Mark Ronson-Bruno Mars number one hit “Uptown Funk”) and none of the hooks from the Kanye West discs. There wasn’t even a bleep from the funkiest single to come off of Wilson’s new album (“Somebody Like You”). Wilson reminded the crowd before exiting that “if you want more, you got to scream for it.” They did, and then the arena lights were turned on. Apparently the gods of the BJCC Legacy Arena were ready to go home and wanted us to as well.