CONCERT REVIEW: Larry Graham and Graham Central Station at the Birchmere 6/17/2010
Put your finger to your nose to denote "sounds like":
- Rick Ross (finger-to-nose) Notorious BIG
- Nicki Minaj (finger-to-nose) Lil Kim
- Drake (finger-to-nose) mixture of Lil Wayne & Kanye
- Can you tell Ne-Yo from The Dream?
Larry Graham's music is forged in stone (Family Stone?) Graham Central Station was a natural extension from Sly, but they never imitated any other style. Straight-ahead bass-led funk. And, of course, a couple of monster slow jams. (One In A Million, When We Get Married, You Are My Lady)
Larry Graham is also a showman which he proved once again at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA after a prolonged absence from DC stages. One thing about this venue is that it's great for up-close-and-personal viewing of performances. No dancing, but you can whoop it up and party like it's 1979!.
On this night, DC turned out to see what we consider the "inventor" of the thump & pluck bass style that was the backbone of 70s funk. The house was packed, and totally juiced. On arrival, we ran into Soul-Patrol-er Tony Thompson, who was 2nd in line and had been chillin' since 1pm.
As with any tail gaiting atmosphere, the folks who come early are deep, deep fans, and tales and memories of GCS were being told and swapped by every group. We exchanged tales of the Capitol Center Sly show when Sly didn't show up. Although many folks split, for many years this was the largest crowd in Capital Center history. On that night Graham (and GCS) just took control and truly shocked the house.. We talked about the first couple GCS shows at the Warner Theater,
Howard's Crampton Auditorium, and Loew's Palace. We swooned over Betty Davis, and wondered who was currently in the group. Word that Prince had surprised the crowd at the previous night's BB King's appearance rippled thru the crowd like wildfire. Can it be possible that this news heightened the level of excitement? This crop of aging funk-a-teers was already sky-high with anticipation. Somewhat saddened about the news of the passing of beloved (Funkadelic guitarist) Gary Shider, we came to party our blues into da funk. From the first pluck, it was evident that this GCS lineup contained no "slouches". The Sly formula, where everybody in the band is a star, part of a funk engine that churns in perpetual motion, is still the backbone. Everybody does their part, everybody sings, everybody's sharp. Six pieces in great harmony. And they generate great power, led by Larry's non-stop power-bass.
The lights went out and all we could hear were drums, tambourines and the familiar voices of Larry, Biscuit, Zynomite, Brazil and Tina coming from the aisles of the intimate, standing room only Birchmere concert hall. The band, featuring Biscuit and her funk box, was entering to the beat of the GCS standard "Intro". The crowd went wild as they reached the stage performing "We've Been Waiting For So Long" the beloved sing-a-long smash from the first LP released in 1973. This song reminded us of how the fellas would try to sound like Larry as we went deep with our squeaky teenage voices.
GCS followed this classic with several songs that were popular in the 1970's such as "Ain't No Fun To Me", "It's Alright", "Feel The Need" and the crowd favorite "I Can't Stand the Rain" which was originally done by Ann Peebles and done rap style by Missy Elliott. The old schoolers in the crowd could be heard singing along to the classic "People ask me everywhere., Is that really all your hair". Of course Larry used to wear the huge afro and this song reminded us of the old afro styles of back in the day.
In the late 70s Larry went solo and recorded several million selling ballads. He sang one of those to the ladies on this night. "One in a Million" had the ladies screaming like teenage white girls. Then the band left the stage to Larry and the drummer Brazil.. Brazil kicked a funky beat while Larry went Jimi Hendrix on the bass. He jumped around, ran through the audience, played with his teeth and just rocked it like he owned the place (he did). He went from "People" (from the first album) to the bass line of "Sex Machine" from the Stand LP. Once again the house was in the palm of his hands (just like his bass).
Next Larry and the band became Larry and The Family Stone. They jammed "Family Affair", " Hot Fun", "Everyday People" amd several other Sly tunes. Of course Larry played bass on most of the Sly hits and his bass voice was a major reason these songs were successful. When he sang "If You Want Me To Stay" he asked a couple folks to join him on stage. One of the audience members to join him was my sister Josette Darden Obi. Josette was thrilled to join the band on stage and is still on that high today.
"Dance to the Music" had the crowd going when Graham and the band went into "The Jam". This might have been the biggest dance song of his career and folk were in the aisles on this night too. They ended the set with "Thank You for Letting Me Be Mice Elf Again". The crowd would not let them leave so they came back out and did the Sly and Graham standard "I Want To Take You Higher". We were already high but on this night they indeed took us higher!
Imagine 5 days later when my phone rings and it's Larry Graham apologizing for being unable to grant us an interview as planned before the Birchmere concert. Well, let's just say I was quite shocked! Mike Hall and I asked him several questions and he became very conversational. The entire interview is below....
"Dr G": Darden and DJ Mike Hall
June 17, 2010
INTERVIEW: Larry Graham
(BY: "Dr G": Darden and DJ Mike Hall)
"Dr G": The best known up and coming rapper known as Drake says you are his uncle. Are you Drake's uncle?
Larry Graham: I have not met him yet to verify this. I have read it but I don't know. My daughter responded to his MySpace so we have reached out to him but they have not yet responded. We could be related but I don't know yet.
"Dr G": The first time I saw GCS was at a small club in Atlanta in 1973. I was a poor Morehouse student and you walked me into the club with your arm around me. I had no money but you and Hershall Happiness made sure I saw the show. This was your first show in Atlanta as GCS. How are Hershall and Chocolate doing and how is her funk box?
Larry Graham: Chocolate is living in LA. She toured with us a little while back and she is on the "Live in London" video soon to be available for you to see. Hershall is also on that video. I heard from him in the last 2 weeks. David Dynamite is no longer with us and Willie Wild came to a show recently. I talked to Butch a couple weeks ago.
DJ Mike Hall: The group we saw at The Birchmere the other night was very tight. When I imagine Larry Graham today, I envision a musician living his dream. You work at your own pace, enjoying family & friends, enjoying the benefits of your successes. You are not a slave to the music. You seem to be on top of things. How do you achieve that and what would you say to the young musicians about how to achieve that?
Larry Graham: Put spiritual things first and like Jesus said, you can't serve two masters. If spirituality is first and you love the music it's much more enjoyable and you are not so concerned about material things. You don't want to be a slave to the music and strive after those things like King Soloman did in the Bible. They don't know who their real friend is. We put spiritual things first and music is always a joy. I don't have a bunch of bills so it becomes a joy and I can work when I want to.
"Dr G": You want to speak on your spirituality and how it affects Brother Nelson (Prince) and your beautiful wife Tina.
Larry Graham: I had heard about Tina braiding hair. On the first GCS album cover you see everybody's hair braided except David Dynamite. She breaded everybody's hair.
"Dr G": People ask you everywhere?
Larry Graham: It took her 8 hours to braid my hair. The whole time we talked about the Bible and God. Then Tina's mom was baptized as a Jehovah Witness in 1974. Tina attended and contacted me and we both started studying. I was baptized a year later. I met Prince 12 years ago. GCS played the amphi-theater in Nashville while Prince was at the arena. He asked me to jam with him at a small club in Nashville. I didn't know he was raised on my music from Sly to GCS. He had tons of questions about the Bible and eventually asked me to move to Minnesota to teach him the Bible. We were going to move from Jamaica anyway, so we moved to Minnesota to help Prince study the Bible.
DJ Mike Hall: I just want to say that the tour with you and Prince was the last time I remember you being in the DC area and that conversation on stage between you and Prince was one of the most amazing moments that I have seen on stage. That just lives with me. What's coming up next?
Larry Graham: I just finished mixing a live album recorded in Paris from an April tour that we just did. They are putting that together in Paris right now and I'm also working on my next CD that should be finished pretty soon. I'm not on a deadline because I'm not locked doewn with a company right now.
"Dr G": And we can get that at LarryGraham.com right?
Larry Graham: Right.
"Dr G": A couple weeks ago I saw The Family Stone at the Capitol Jazz Fest in Columbia, MD where I live. They put on a great show but I would love to see the original group reunite with that deep voice that was missing. And we were wondering what it might be like for Larry Graham (with that deep voice) to get back with these guys and maybe even Sly. Any chance of that happening?
Larry Graham: You know that everything that happens in my life that has been major was never planned. From playing the bass to starting GCS, it was never planned. So I won't say it will happen but I certainly won't say that it won't happen.
"Dr G": It would be the world's biggest tour and we know the Beatles can't get together, but you can, and the world wants to see it.
Larry Graham: Well we can't rule it out.
DJ Mike Hall: Well on my block, speaking of the Beatles, Sly and The Family Stone was known as the Black Beatles. What always struck me about the San Francisco musicians and groups was the diversity. Not only racially but men and women in the same group and the women were not just background singers they sang their own parts. Today it's still pretty rare.
Larry Graham: Yeah that was a very unique feature of the group. Yeah I appreciate it too. Remember at the Uruba Sinbad special when Jerry Martini, Cynthia and Rose played with me? That was 4 original Family Stone members and when we went on tour that year with Prince, Gregg Errico often showed up to make it 5 original members on stage. Only Freddie and Sly were missing, which is why I say you can't rule it out. That was already about as close as you can get and at 1 show Freddie almost came up I think and they would have made 6. Everybody except Sly.
"Dr G": And at the Grammys (a couple years ago) everyone was on stage and I think you were in the audience?
Larry Graham: I was there earlier and when the show was actually being filmed I was not there.
DJ Mike Hall: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about that San Francisco scene. Do you consider yourself as part of that scene? You played with Betty Davis and then the dressing on that first album with the 40's look with Zoot suits sort of reminded me of the Pointer Sisters who were coming out around that same time. To me I'm sensing a scene where everybody was into the retro dressing and I was just wondering did you all really hang out and work together or was it just a management thing? Groups like the Pointer Sisters, Cold Blood, Betty Davis and Tower of Powere even?
Larry Graham: Tower of Power were on a lot of my early albums and yes I was around Betty Davis a lot but not so much Cold Blood or the Pointers although my drummer Gaylord Birch did play with the Pointer Sisters but he didn't bring any style of dress or anything. No, the only ones we really hung with were TOP and Betty Davis.
G Now in the DC area there is a movement called go-go music. Now I don't know how much you know about go-go or Mr Chuck Brown?
Larry Graham: Oh yeah, yeah a friend of mine was trying to get Chuck to come to the show but he wasn't available.
"Dr G": You ever jam with Chuck or play any go-go? Of course they also borrow your bass lines.
Larry Graham: I would love to meet him some day.
"Dr G": You know they consider you the Jimi Hendrix of the bass. And we saw that the other night when you did "People" and went into the bass line of one of my favorite songs "Sex Machine" and that whole Hendrix on bass thing that really you started and only you could even think about doing anything like that. Can you speak on that? Did you ever play with Jimi Hendrix or the late Garry Shider of Funkadelic who just died?
Larry Graham: When he was with Parliament we did shows together at Radio City Music Hall when George was coming out of the coffin and other gigs but as far as the Parliament are concerned we go all the way back to Sly and the Family Stone when Parliament were still wearing suits.
"Dr G": You ever jam with Jimi?
Larry Graham: Never jammed with, but I did see him at a club one time at a place called Steve Pauls'Scene on 46th Street in NY. Sitting a couple tables down from me. He joined a band that was on stage and turned the club out.
DJ Mike Hall: I'd like to know about some of your influences. You've been on the scene really for so long. I'd like to think back to what you listened to as a kid and what influenced you?
Larry Graham: Well my biggest musicial influence was my Mother who played piano and sang and my Dad played guitar and sang. My grandmother, who raised me while my Mother traveled all over the world, saw to it that I got dance lessons and piano lessons and I played in the marching band which you can tell by (my song) "Intro". Then I wanted to play sax but they made me play clarinet first and I started playing guitar at 11 when my Dad decided he wasn't going to play anymore. I taught myself to play at 11 and cut my first record at 15. I lisened to Chuck Berry but my favorite guitar player was Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. I taught myself to play his record "The Okie Dokie Stomp". Then Ike and Tina came to Filmore West and they invited me on stage to play "The Okie Dokie Stomp". We turned it out and this was my first big stage experience and I was like "yeah I like this". I was 13 then and later on in the early 70s GCS opened up for Ike and Tina. So I played for them as a teen and again in my 20s.
"Dr G": How did you come up with that thumping and plucking sound that everyone in the world from Stanley Clarke to Bootsy Collins has copied? Those guys love you and consider you the originator.
Larry Graham: Well my Mother and I started working together (she played piano) when I was 16 along with a drummer who also sang. I was playing guitar. So we had the Dell Graham Trio. This one club we worked in had a organ with bass pedals. I learned how to play the guitar and the bass pedals (with my feet) at the same time. It had much bottom and sounded full. I got used to that sound then the organ broke down and it sounded empty now. So I rented a St George bass to play while the organ was being repaired. The organ could not be repaired so I got stuck on the bass and Mom decided we were going duo without drums with just piana and bass. So to make up without having that bass drum I would thump the thing and to make up without having the snare I would pluck it. So this is how I came up with thumping and plucking out of necessity since I no longer had the drums. It was like playing drums with the bass. And because I wasn't listening to other bass players, I wasn't influenced by the way they played with the so-called correct overhand style. If I had planned to be a bass player I would have played like that because my bass player played like that when I played guitar. So at this club where we played 2 doors down from Haight and Asbury there was this lady who liked the way I played the bass so she kept calling Sly Stone who had a radio show in San Francisco. I heard this many years later but she was a big fan of Sly and had heard he was starting a band and she wanted Sly to hear this very different bass player. She kept telling Sly "you gotta hear this bass player". So because of her persistence, I didn't know her, he came down and heard this weird way I played the bass and asked me to play in the band. That's how it became popular with songs like "Dance to the Music" and "Thank You". By this time I am no longer stuck on the bass, I am loving it.
DJ Mike Hall: Interesting, at the show (in DC) a guy said to me that it was your Mother calling Sly constantly. Glad to get this story straight.
Larry Graham: No she was just this lady, she didn't even know Sly. We found out later that she was a regular at the club so we went to thank her and she had moved. We don't know if she even knows that I went on to become a member of the band. My Mother had nothing to do with it.
DJ Mike Hall: What was the name of the band? What was your Mom's claim to fame?
Larry Graham: The Dell Graham Trio. Google it.
DJ Mike Hall: Were you on "Come on and Swim" by Bobby Freeman (produced by Sly)?
Larry Graham: No, but I did a concert with him when that record was out. We were on the same bill in San Francisco.
"Dr G": Who are some of your favorite guitarists today?
Larry Graham: Prince! That sort of covers everything.
DJ Mike Hall: Do you listen to any new music and who would that be?
Larry Graham: I try to listen to a little bit of everything. I'm kind of old school. Give me a little Chaka Chan, a little Stevie Wonder. A lot of the new stuff is based on old school anyway. My daughter Latia listens to everything and I hear it from her.
"Dr G": Do you have other kids?
Larry Graham: I have a son in California . He is also a songwriter and producer. He produced the group Wild Orchid. The girl from Black Eyed Peas was in the group Wild Orchid. He also produced the early boy group EYC who all the boy groups tried to sound like.
DJ Mike Hall: You are an artist whose music is so self-contained and we don't hear a lot of Larry Graham samples. Is that because you don't allow it or because people don't ask so much.
Larry Graham: I have been asked a lot on stuff that I have approved but often unless you really have an ear or you are in tune to all parts of my music you might now hear that it's "The Jam" or "Pow" or something. They build around the record and sometimes you can't tell. That's cool but I'm not the most sampled out there like James Brown.
"Dr G": Speaking of James Brown, he's a personal favorite of Mike and I also, did you ever get a chance to jam with James?
Larry Graham: Not with him but we were on the same show. We played on the same show. I remember seeing James when I was a teenager in Oakland and we opened for him in Ohio with GCS.
DJ Mike Hall: You're living now in Minneapolis?
Larry Graham: I am living 25 miles west of Minneapolis. One magazine rated my town as the #2 city to live in in the country.
DJ Mike Hall: Must have been a shock going from southern California to Jamaica to Minneapolis. I went to St Paul in 1973 and I have never been cold since.
Larry Graham: It's not something you get used to but you have to know how to deal with it. Spring, summer and fall is just beautiful. Even the snow in winter is still beautiful because it's not that nasty snow you might get in other big cities. Pretty snow and they keep the roads clean. But the below 0 stuff is just ugly. The 20 and 30 below. It was sort of a shocker to move from Montego Bay to Minneapolis in December but we immediately found the Mall of America and some warm clothes and we bought a Suburban and we straight! Tina and I know how to deal with it now. You have to break it up. Go somewhere warm for a couple weeks and then come back home.
DJ Mike Hall: I've been married for 26 years myself and it's really a blessing and when you said she (Tina) was braiding your hair back in 1972 and you guys have been together all but 2 days since then gave me goose bumps. That was as profound of a moment as listening to "Stand".
Larry Graham: Once was for Eddie Murphy's party and the other was for The Grammys on the east coast when my manager insisted that he needed to go and we only had 2 tickets.And my daughter until she reached 18 was with me everyday of her life except 1 day. Whenever you saw me, you saw Tina and Latia.
DJ Mike Hall: In my book, that is easily the key to a happy and successful life.
Larry Graham: Oh man, I'm telling you she is my best friend we talk all the time and we do everything together and we study the Bible together.
"Dr G": We would like to thank you for the music. This interview is for soul-patrol.com and we will make sure you get a copy of this interview on the internet. And as fans we would like to say thank you.
Larry Graham: You are more than welcome. I will be looking forward to that and I will put it up on the site so that everybody will get a chance to check it out.
DJ Mike Hall: At your next Graham family reunion "G" and I would love to come where ever you are and DJ for you.
Larry Graham: That's kind of you. I have always wanted to go to one but it's always in the summer and I'm always about to do something or I'm busy doing something else. But one of these days I want to catch one and I will keep you in mind for sure.
"Dr G": And maybe Drake will be there.
Larry Graham: You know what, if he makes contact with me and it turns out we are blood we can probably plan to deliberately make plans to be there together.
DJ Mike Hall: That must discount what we heard as a rumor that he was your brother's son?
Larry Graham: Well, I only have a half brother Eric and he is no longer alive, but we were not always around each other and we were not raised together. Eric and his wife and me and my wife used to study the Bible together but I don't know that they had a son named Drake.
"Dr G": Drake's mom is Canadian, was Eric's wife Canadian or could he have had a son with a Canadian woman?
Larry Graham: We can't rule it out. Drake and I will have to get together to discuss.
"Dr G": Well, like Swamp Dog said, "Mama's baby, Daddy's maybe"!
Larry Graham: Hahahahahahahaha……….
"Dr G": Darden and DJ Mike Hall
June 21, 2010
CONCERT REVIEW: The Return of Graham Central Station @ Regency Ballroom - San Francisco (4/2/2010)
It was another Good Friday for the Funk. I remember in about 1970 when Larry Graham premiered the original version of Graham Central Station at the long-gone Keystone Berkeley. It was an Easter weekend then as well. Mr. Graham must feel his element 'round this time of year.
The main floor of the Regency Ballroom is near capacity at three minutes before show time on April 2. The balcony is sparse but starting to fill rapidly also. An exciting buzz fills the crowd. The DJ is spinning mad R&B, the Isley Bros., Esquires, Teddy P., Rick James, etc.
It's 9 p.m. The lights dim. There's a band up there tuning up. Must be Slave. They look too young to be Slave. The lead singer is Mr. Donny P. The rhythm section is male. A woman on keys. Two women background singers. The original version of Slave recorded a large catalog of music for the Cotillion, Atlantic and Ichiban labels from 1977 through 1995. The band kicks of a slew of hits and riffs that tantalize the funky nostalgia cortex in the brain. Pleasure central of the auditory realm. "Watching You." "Just A Touch Of Love." The band performs a medley of hits, some originally by Slave, some not, culminating with the monster hit "Slide." People are up dancing. The bass player is really bringing it, knowing that the King of the Funky Bass is up next.
Just before 10:30 p.m. the lights again dim, eliciting a roar of approval from the assembled.
Suddenly a marching tempo of snare, tom and bass drum is heard from the rear of the room. Led and punctuated by new GCS member and seeming Drillmaster Ashley Cole, the new Graham Central Station marches toward the stage in cadenced precision, chanting the GCS cheer, "Gee, cess ess, the baddest band from east to west ..." As the crowd gradually becomes aware of what's really happening, the roar of approval transcends into a deafening, sonic, out-of-many one voice.
When they reached the stage, the group reprised the anthemic a capella "Entrow," from their first self-titled album:
"We been waiting for so long, waiting to play for you some of our songs cuz we been waiting …"
The band launches into the frenetic crowd pleasers "Ain't No Fun To Me" followed by "It's Alright."
At the end of the opening two-song medley - which really had the folks dancin', sangin' and swayin' - Larry attempted to address the crowd. They would not let him. They were already overcome. The crowd's out-of-many one voice returned in pure, uncut, unadulterated adulation. The true original sound of San Francisco Bay Area Funk had returned. It was truly a magic, emotional moment.
The King of the Funky Bass pounds his chest and points to the crowd, silently speaking volumes over the seismic ovation. It goes on for a good five minutes, a grateful crowd, thankful for being itself again and unspoken, heartfelt, telepathic ebb and flow of love from the Bass master.
And so it went. Song after song. Much of the Graham Central catalog as well as the baritone hits of Larry Graham as vocalist. An arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" lifted the whole room. They graced the staged fully for two and a half hours, proving fully that they are not only fit to tour Europe, but fully poised to introduce the Funk to the legions some three generations later.
For those of you who weren't born when it happened, Larry Graham, before Gee Cee Ess, was the original bass player for the much-heralded co-creators of Funk, Sly & The Family Stone. Graham invented the slapping or thump and pluck method of bass playing which has influenced legions of bass players in his wake.
This group broke so much new ground with its hybrid mix of Church of God In Christ Holy Ghost rhythms, psychedelic rock, Stax/Motown altered offerings that, not only made Sly a favorite musician of Jazzster Miles Davis, the group heavily influenced Herbie Hancock as well.
The testimony to that is the Funk friendly fusion period of the 70's that pointed toward the Family Stone as the source of inspiration.
In 1969, at the mother of all Rock Festivals, Woodstock, was held in upstate New York in front of more that a quarter of a million folks. Carlos Santana, whose band also played wonderfully at Woodstock, is quoted as saying "Sly & The Family Stone outplayed them all."
Since the dissolutions of the original incarnations of Sly & The Family Stone and Graham Central Station, Larry has stayed busy. He reinvented himself as a soulful balladeer in 1979 with the album and single "One In A Million You" which was nominated for Best R&B Performance, Male.
Throughout the 80s he released a string of successful albums as well as a duet with Lady Soul Aretha Franklin. In the 90s he collaborated musically with Eddie Murphy followed by an evolved unit of Gee Cee Ess featuring former Sly band mates Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini.
Incidentally Larry was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 as a member of Sly & The Family Stone and received a Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer award in 2001 as well. He has also become affiliated with Prince and remains in constant collaboration with him musically.
Currently, in April of 2010, Larry Graham & Graham Central Station are touring Europe since the aforementioned April 2 debut in San Francisco. Early press reports indicated that Gee Cee Ess is killing them with the Funk.
New U.S. dates have are being added to their itinerary for the month of June including New York, D.C. and Minneapolis. Additionally, a new CD is in the works.
For more information on Larry Graham including an audio interview done on April 12 go to www.larrygraham.com. There will be rebroadcast on In The Free Zone at KPFZ 88.1 FM on April 23 at 3 p.m.. It also is archived at www.teewatts.biz.
Keep prayin', keep thinkin' those kind thoughts!
--T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. Visit his Web site at www.teewatts.biz