Chaka Khan, Mint Condition Brings Funky Soul Revue to Magic City: Concert Review

Posted June 9, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Reviews 1.0

Evening of funk takes over the stratosphere in Bill Harris arena

If one was to patrol the seating arrangements inside the comfortable Bill Harris Arena on the same campus of Birmingham, Ala’s highly touted Crossplex facility, you probably would have thought this was a bad joke. Not that the venue was marred with troubles. If there was anything serious to gripe at, it would be the two cash bars set up on three stretched utility tables out front near the concession stands. The simple decorum, resembling that of an elementary school science fair, sucked some of the elegance out of the power-packed double-decker show featuring Minneapolis funk band Mint Condition and eight-time Grammy award singing sensation Chaka Khan. The bill, almost too irresistible to resist, brought a slimmer and sexier Khan, now age 60, back to the city of Birmingham, for an evening of funky nostalgia and vibrant sing-a-longs. Mint Condition, who has appeared at smaller venues in recent years like the Platinum of Birmingham, would be traveling down memory lane revisiting their urban contemporary sounds.

The evening was marred with a few major drawbacks. Despite not starting on time due to a late soundcheck by Mint Condition, leaving ticketholders outdoors for almost a hour, the show was spoiled by the lack of concert goers in attendance. The building was barely 20 percent full, proving that promotions failed to dig deep in the depths of the four commercial markets (TV, radio, print, Internet) and that the Birmingham radio station WBHK-FM depended entirely on 30-second radio-only slots to get the public’s attention. Clearly the strategy failed, leaving the majority of the locals outside of the loop of Khan’s arrival. Making matters worse, WBHK and the other Cox-owned stations in the area learned their fates weeks before the concert when it was announced that they were sold to Summit Media for $66.25 million. Layoffs were murmured in the headlines while changes of programming were also rumored. When radio personality Isis Jones took the stage to greet the few hundred in attendance using her best radio tone, she seemed defeated. Despite the 6,000 seating capacity of the large room, the entertainers that would follow the emcee had no other choice but to pretend they were playing to an intimate lounge.

Mint Condition, dressed very casually, opened their showcase displaying high decibel funk led by Brandon Commodore’s snare-banging drumming and Homer O’dell on lead guitar. Lead singer Stokley waltz through “You Send Me Swinging,” “So Fine” and the Prince-esque slow jam “My Dear.” And there were plenty more odes to Prince throughout their hour long set, while showing off Erykah Badu neo-soul on “Whoa” and a slick candy assortment of ballads entangling r&b hits like “Someone to Love,” “You Don’t Have to Hurt No More” and “If You Love Me” in a ten-minute medley. They left enough room to pull out a few new tracks like “SixFortyNine” and the neo-Frankie Beverly crowd rocker, “Nothing Left to Say,” which leans on the melodic cool of “We Are One.” The extravagant drum fills and jazz fusion chord shifts eventually became the flashy parts of Mint Condition’s package in reshaping their album tracks for the live event. At times, things were a bit frantic, even on their closer of “Pretty Brown Eyes” where the band remixed their arrangement with Afro-jazz percussive tantrums. They weren’t here to play karaoke with their long list of crowd favorites. Instead they were on a mission to reinvent them before our very eyes. There were a few glaring absences (“Believe in Us,” the gangsta New Jack Swing-ing “Nobody Does It Betta”), but it’s virtually impossible to please everyone within one hour with their kind of resume.

The same could be applied to Chaka. Her repertoire, too huge to stuff in a hour, would run across the same burden. When she opened her set with the unforgettable Melle Mel tag to “I Feel for You,” the audience knew they were going to be handed the hits and nothing but the hits. Her one-hour set mostly covered her experience with the funk band Rufus, including a rapturous reprise of “You Got the Love,” a sassy “I’m a Woman (I’m a Backbone),” “Pack’d My Bags,” the crowd favorite “Tell Me Something Good,” a smooth Quiet Storm overlooked gem (“Everlasting Love”) and the two big closers “Do You Love What You Feel” and “Ain’t Nobody.” Devout fans were missing a few favorites, including “Once You Get Started” and “At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up),” but those omissions were deemed unnecessary when they considered the wealth of talent that dominated Khan’s set. Firstly, her band was in tip-top shape, sporting bad-ass guitar licks from her Lenny Kravitz clone and sultry background vocals that rivaled those of Luther Vandross. At times, the backing divas helped fill in places when Khan needed a break from constantly hitting the soaring high notes and loud wails, just so she catch a good breath. Secondly, Khan looked superb, divine, tasty. She stunned the audience with a black see-through Beyonce-esque leotard, exposing her new curves due to a healthier lifestyle, a successful diet and her conversion to veganism. Last but not least, Khan cranked out her hits in the same fashion as they were once rendered on record. At her age, with many of her contemporaries choosing to lower the keys to their hits, Khan fearlessly belted her songs as if she was the only one to pull them off. Her set was blessed with a few extra memorable moments, which included a rare impromptu performance of Stevie’s “Superstition” with Stokley. American Idol winner Ruben Studdard was also in attendance and summoned to the stage to sing “Sweet Thing.” A bit of hilarity ensued when Khan introduced him as Rubert, but she easily recalled her memory of the “205” tee-wearing champion when she called him “my teddy bear.” It was clearly evident that Studdard, a bit chubbier now, was grinning from ear to ear as he marveled over Khan’s divadom. And why wouldn’t he?

Khan also simmered things down when she echoed the sincere beauty of her mid-‘80’s AC gem “Through the Fire.” As the song approached its last minutes, Khan opened up about her past mistakes and thanked God for her survival. “I used to be a bad girl,” she said. “I used to get high. Then I heard the Holy Spirit, say ‘Girl, pull yourself up. You can’t go nowhere. You got work to do.’ I put that stuff down and I stepped on it…and then I bought another one. I finally got the message.” The song then morphed into a mini Aretha gospel revival. “I’m all right now. God has been good to me. Hallelujah.” Some of the on-stage testifying was muddled down in its intensity when I got a whiff of the gent behind me smoking his custom blend of Black and Mild and cannabis.

Khan flirted with the audience, shaking hands with her amped congregation crowding the stage. She even complimented their fashions, showing a sweet blend of humanity with ego. She was equally impressed with their intellect. “Y’all know all of my songs,” she later said.

As previously stated, Khan gave up two finishers, but did not return for an encore. And it would have been foolish and quite embarrassing if she did. Khan was practically singing to an empty room with only the first eight rows full and a few hundred decorating the sidelines. But that bit of bad news didn’t vex the spirit of Khan. The backing singers seemed perplexed in the beginning, particularly before Khan made her grand entrance to the synth-executed harmonica on “I Feel for You.” But when Hurricane Khan stormed the stage and an average of eighty fans flooded the banks of the platform, the riptide of her set washed away all doubts. Birmingham missed a good show. I stand corrected – they missed out on a great show. Khan, a few decades past her zenith, proved she was still the zesty soul siren that once dominated music headlines. And as she zoomed into town on the halfway point of her 100 Days of Chaka campaign, an interactive online celebration geared towards her 40th anniversary in the music biz and a forthcoming new album, there was enough proof here to validate that she has a lot of time on her mortal clock.

A video montage of the concert is forthcoming. Stay tuned for details.

Photography and images courtesy of J Matthew Cobb and HiFi Magazine.





Date: May 10, 2013
Location: Bill Harris Arena at the Crossplex, Birmingham, Ala.
Tickets: $55-$70

Mint Condition Set List:

In the Moment
I Want It
You Send Me Swingin’
So Fine
Someone to Love
You Don’t Have to Hurt No More
If You Love Me
Nothing Left to Say
My Dear
What Kind of a Man Would I Be
Pretty Brown Eyes

Chaka Khan Set List:

I Feel for You
I’m a Woman (I’m a Backbone)
What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’
Superstition (feat. Stokley)
Everlasting Love
Pack’d My Bags
You Got the Love
Tell Me Something Good
Through the Fire
Sweet Thing (feat. Ruben Studdard)
Do You Love What You Feel
I’m Every Woman
Ain’t Nobody

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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