For more than forty years, the prolific Brooklyn-based soul and funk artist Lee Fields has beguiled and exhilarated audiences, and last Thursday night at the Bowery Ballroom, Fields and his band the Expressions did little to change that rep. The night’s sold-out performance marked the album release party for Lee Fields & the Expressions’ forthcoming record Imogen (Truth and Soul Records), named after Fields’ late mother.
The opening act, also native New Yorkers, was Ikebe Shakedown, a seven-piece instrumental ensemble whose musical proclivities were securely rooted in the dance-centric, Afrobeat soul sensations of the late 1970s. They played as one irresistibly dynamic unit, rarely disrupting the constant flow of salacious grooves to address the audience. With no words, no catchy hooks—excluding the brooding licks spewed out by saxophonist Mike Buckley and trumpet player Jason Colby—these punchy, polyrhythmic numbers were all the more aggressive. Ikebe Shakedown played several songs from their most recent album, Stone By Stone (Ubiquity Records), kicking off the set with album opener, The Offering. The hapless, stumbling swag of the album’s title track followed, bassist Vince Chiarito sputtering guttural melodies that gorgeously complemented that of the baritone sax. On another new track, By Hook Or Crook, the guitarist’s solo was stiff, staccato, hip-shaking madness, replacing the piano part that usually plays the melody on the record. Trombone player Nadav Nirenberg was the bandleader of sorts, commanding the ensemble with cherry red swollen cheeks and what was inevitably the most powerful instrument on stage. Seeing torrents of saliva and built-up condensation trickling from a large brass instrument just a yard or two away made the whole experience simply fantastic.
As Lee Fields sauntered down the stairs of the green room and onto the stage of Bowery Ballroom, the Expressions were midway through a roiling and ecstatic opening dance number, accented by a poignant brass section and the tight guitar syncopation. Fields had this air about him that, in addition to being deceptively youthful and sprightly, evoked a very warm, very sensational feeling in your gut. The audience was comprised of all ages, races and sizes, but they all shared one thing in common: large, ear-to-ear, teeth-baring grins. “Are you happy?” Fields posed to the audience in between lyrics from a new song from Imogen. The audience responded with a great big wallop of positive affirmation. At one point during the set, Fields introduced the next number, Magnolia, a cover of a J.J. Cale song, which did not completely abandon the soft, lethargic undertones of the original. Immediately following though, the band took a u-turn back to Funkytown. Fields was always active on stage but became more somber with more ballads like Faithful Man. His scrunched-up crooning face looked legitimately pained and the beads of sweat streaming from his brow could almost be tears. Tears of joy.
Photos by Angel Eugenio Fraden.