- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

In what is becoming a tradition of genre revival, the Funk Brothers are on the road enjoying a victory tour. The Brothers, for the uninitiated, were the offensive line of Berry Gordy’s Motown hit machine in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the ones who did all the work but got none of the glory.

Until now. Grammys have begun rolling in, and they’ll receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at next month’s ceremony, but they’ll still be on that tour, thank you very much.

Collectively, the Brothers played on more No. 1 hits than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley combined. They had a little help from folks such as Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, but, hey, everyone needs a sound bite, and theirs happens to be true.

It took a book and, more important, a 2002 documentary for the world to remember this stable of session musicians, much as the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” kick-started a surge in the popularity of bluegrass music.

Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker hoped to accomplish the same for classic soul music with “Only the Strong Survive” last year. For now, it’s the Funk Brothers’ turn.

The crowded ensemble — the six surviving Brothers stood out in blue double-breasted blazers, while a handful of union players from Philadelphia, New York and Atlantic City and a trio of singers filled out the back line — played two sets at the Birchmere Monday night, the first sold out, the next nearly so.

We caught the late show. Alas, it took on the air of a wedding at times. There was too much hammy audience participation, some of it R-rated. And there were the songs: “My Girl,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Heatwave,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “How Sweet It Is” …

Add a little disco and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to these Motown classics, and you would have had the ultimate wedding reception.

But here’s the thing: These guys actually played those classics. The tambourine shakes from Jack Ashford; the guitar riffs from Joe Messina and Eddie Willis; the backbeat from Uriel Jones; the organ accompaniment from Joe Hunter. Every lick heard Monday was the real deal.

Vocalist Peabo Bryson gave a soulful rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and backup singer John Ingram took center stage for “It’s a Shame” and the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”

Phoebe Snow was on the bill Monday, but the singer had fallen ill. An up-and-comer just signed to Blue Note Records, the jazz singer Raul Midon, took her place, singing Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher.” (No, that wasn’t a Motown product; that was when the Brothers drove 4 hours to Chicago and cheated on the late Mr. Gordy.)

Mr. Midon also turned in “For Once in My Life.” The singing was fine, but the vocalist also demonstrated how he can mimic the sound of a muted trumpet with his mouth. Watch out for this guy.

Maybe the best thing about Monday night was that it was Martin Luther King Day. Not to get all Rainbow Coalition-y, but the Funk Brothers are the picture of racial integration, and the audience was, too. Judging from the look of that audience, the phenomenon appears to be generational.

Young blacks and whites share no such music in common today. We have no “Big Chill” soundtrack. That’s sad.

There is a voracious suburban white audience for gangsta rap, but it’s not aimed at, nor does it speak to, that group. Motown, on the other hand, is universal.

Mr. Bryson was on to something Monday night when he said that if you’re looking for what’s best about America, you need only look right here.


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