The Roots and American Idol Alums Bring “The Next Movement” to Birmingham’s CityFest
Despite glitches, CityFest shows off soulful celebration of music for a Southern city on the rise
For those yearning to catch a terrible mishap at the newly-instituted Schaeffer Eye Center CityFest while possessed by some Wicked Witch of the West demon, they had very little to work with. The average pessimist fighting against Birmingham, Alabama’s survival wanted to hear the sound of gun shots, gang fights or some beastly behavior that fits the urban epicenter stereotype. But none of that happened. Instead the free event, spearheaded by superstar eye doctor Jack Schaeffer and the emperors of Birmingham city government, gave the city of Birmingham a come-hither celebration done on a scale of a miniature Central Park concert. There were a few hiccups: NYC rock band Fancy Reagan was moved to an earlier time slot; there weren’t enough food trucks to accommodate the swelling evening crowds; the $150 VIP seating arrangement near the stage looked like a bootleg prison from the average festival goer; F-bombs could be heard in explicit versions of Top 40 hits played during intermissions. But City Fest did what it was set out to do. With the Crawfish Boil on pause, Shaeffer’s vision of a free city festival in Birmingham’s poshest green space looked every bit promising.
The day-long event featured some of the city’s modern-day musical icons: Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard both won American Idol on their respected seasons and have had their share of pop hits. Although their careers have dwindled in size since they hit their commercial stride while on the TV show, their careers remain in good standing with their followers and peers. Hicks just finished a two-year residency in Las Vegas and Studdard just completed a new album with pop producing legend David Foster at its helm.
If you’ve seen one Ruben Studdard show, you’ve pretty much seen them all. And his City Fest set was no different: funky variations of Luther Vandross classics (“Never Too Much”), Frankie Beverly throwbacks (“Joy and Pain”), Johnnie Taylor blues (“Last Two Dollars,” “Just Because”). What was different from Studdard’s previous performances is witnessing a healthier trimmed figure, something he’s managed to keep off since his stint on another reality TV show, The Biggest Loser. He looked quite dapper in his crimson red jacket and black tux pant, fitting in the role of Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentleman. Now divorced and living single, the crowned Velvet Teddy Bear could have turned up the heat on his 40-minute show had he passed out roses akin to Al Green or worked the stage using more R&B flair. Instead, Studdard appeared more tired than usual. Although his voice was in stellar shape, stretching effortlessly for high notes and long holds, it seemed as if the southern heat was chipping away at his stamina. It didn’t help to hear the sound system reduced to silence during Studdard’s excavations of Frankie Beverly’s call-and-response anthem, “Joy and Pain.” For those two or three minutes, the audience clapped along to the barely audible drum beats while singing the familiar chorus. By the time the monitors returned to normal, the thrill was gone. Propping him up was the weighty struts of an amicable backup band, the meat and potatoes of Just a Few Kats, and a few female background vocalists.
Taylor Hicks’s playlist was no different from his usual. His perusing of the barrelhouse blues and his forklifting of soul workouts like “Love the One You’re With” and Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together” remained his live collection. In order to spice things up, Hicks’ jams were spread out like Gov’t Mule fireworks. Jukejoint soul and churchy tambourine-possessed breakouts filled in all the corners of his presentation. Occasional drifts into the occasional sing-a-long (like Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and Sly Stone’s “Everyday People”) allowed spontaneity to take over. The aroma of the fried chicken inside the original composition of “Country Living” made some in the crowd rush to his Saw’s Soul Kitchen food truck. All the extra seasoning gave Hicks a special advantage as the opener for the Roots.
Birmingham mayor William Bell introduced the headlining act as the “baddest band in the land.” Diversity speaking, the Roots deserve such a crown. They fire up Miles Davis jazz fusion, Parliament/Funkadelic funk and muscular hip-hop powered by Questlove’s trademark snare. Their close-to-two-hour set featured all of that, including the rarest self-indulgent grandstanding and jazzy exploitations. Some songs bared a mightier purpose: “The Fire” with Kirk Douglas dutifully handling John Legend’s part and a brief detour into Rick James’s hemp worship (“Mary Jane”) seemed apropos with all the Black and Mild and weed smells prevailing in the air; the Curtis Mayfield-sounding “How I Got Over” and the inclusion of Mayfield’s “Move on Up” was dedicated to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church martyrs of 1963. But their fiery underground hip-hop jams, particularly with “Proceed” and “The Next Movement,” earned them the biggest reception from the sea of thousands camped in the 19-acre Railroad Park. Several encores from the ‘Tonight Show’ band ensued, keeping hardcore fans at their posts and hungry for more. By the time the Roots’ frontman Black Thought introduced their legendary band leader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and shouted out the last “We love you Birmingham” farewell, the park’s crowd made their way back to their respected destinations. And all that was left behind was a half-mile of litter and excessive debris left for the city and park’s sanitation crew to scoop up. If Birmingham’s grumpiest naysayers wanted to seriously gripe about anything, it would be the eye sore left behind from the City Fest’s large crowd. Organizers planned for 1,500. They got more than 20,000 (including the crowd at nearby Regions Field). Mark this event under “success.” Compared to the disappointing Revival Music Fest of last year, this was an epiphany.