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Vernon Reid

Hunter Center @ Mass Moca
North Adams, MA
May 28, 2006


Ever feel like you've been someplace before? I got that feeling one more time - for good and ill - thanks to Vernon Reid & Masque and Liquid Soul, the featured actors in the opening night of Mass MoCA's summer concert season.

The basis for these episodes of déjà vu come from past concert experiences: One almost twenty-five years ago at (of all things) a Billy Squier show - that's the “good” one - and one that happened last year with Steps Ahead 2005, the closing act of Freihofer's first day of concerts. That's definitely the “bad” one, and both this night and that night were causes for extreme disappointment.

As with Steps Ahead, I'd been quite psyched to see Vernon Reid & Masque, despite the disparaging noises I'd heard about their new disc, Other True Self (Favored Nations). I was a huge fan of Living Colour back in the day, and wanted to see if Reid's new unit could bring the same sense of energy & originality to jazz that Living Colour brought to rock & roll. No such luck.

Steps Ahead took me back 20 years to a place where I'd have been cheering wildly at their rocked-out improv, but that night at Freihofer's left me cold. Masque also took me back - back to 80's-era heavy-metal concerts where you wish Thornton Wilder had told the band, “Get it out of your heads that music is only good when it's loud!” In both cases, the biggest disappointment was that these are all talented musicians who could do so much better.

Where groups like The Bad Plus and Medeski, Martin & Wood use deconstruction to make their point, Masque is all about demolition, as feedback and dissonance washed over the Hunter Center from the first notes of “Lightning”, Reid's tribute to rock/blues pioneer Lightning Hopkins. Listening to that tune, I paraphrased Slide Hampton's comment at the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars show: “If you hear Lightning Hopkins anywhere in that song, you tell me!”

Reid himself was funny and personable between songs, alternating between the political (“We stopped living in America… Now we live in the United States of Absurdia. You heard it here first!”) and the self-deprecating; he told us he is working on “his primary inclination” to be a “shoe-gazer” - that is, to not make eye contact while he plays. He made contact, all right - with his bandmates, and with the laptop where he conjured up tape loops and voice tracks. He didn't face the crowd once while playing, whether soloing or not. You got the sense that if his band had been placed behind him, the crowd would have seen nothing but his back all night long.

That's the bad déjà vu; now for the good déjà vu. Billy Squier's '83 tour is legendary in rock history because he kept getting blown off the stage. His opening act was a very young, slightly known band from Sheffield named Def Leppard; they went on to sell billions of sleeveless Union Jack t-shirts, while Squier went hurtling into the bargain bin. I can't say whether Liquid Soul will have the same effect on teen fashion, but I do know that where Masque got glazed eyes and walkouts, Liquid Soul got people up off their seats and onto the dance floor.

Saxman Mars Williams has himself a monstrous little unit that mixes the best of James Brown and P-Funk, with Williams playing Maceo Parker-quality sax while MC Mr. Greenweedz and human Beat Box David “Boy Ellroy” Arrendondo keep the crowd at Happy Frenzy level. Trumpeter/keyboardist Doug Corcoran paired with Williams to make one funkified horn section while Liquid Soul alternated between older pieces like “Soul Peanuts” (a hip-hop reworking of the Dizzy tune that would have had John Birks smiling) and new material from One-Two Punch (Telarc).

Hardcore jazz fans might not dig this band, but if you've got an Inner Dancer waiting to break out, Liquid Soul is your cup of espresso. If Reid's not too busy staring at his laptop, he might check out his opening act one night to see how a band can really get interactive with an audience.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.