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Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monae and Rickey Minor Photo credit: Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging The consummate “Tonight Show” bandleader and friends celebrate global rhythms at the Hollywood Bowl.
The Hollywood Bowl touts many a music festival, from the annual Playboy Jazz Festival to the World Music Festival. There’s even a Mariachi USA Festival.
And now, judging by the nearly souled-out festival this past Sunday night, we may well have witnessed the first annual soul music festival—this one, an international celebration of soul.
“The thing about soul music,” says Rickey Minor, “is that it’s not black or white or blue or green … It’s music that really resonates and really touches your soul … It makes you feel something …”
And if you want to feel soul and you happen to be the former musical director for one of the most soulful artists on the planet—Stevie Wonder—that’s who you call on first. “I told him [Stevie] what I was doing—celebrating soul around the world—and I told him I wanted him to be a part of it.”
And when Stevie responded with an enthusiastic “I’m in,” Minor set about the task of deciding who else should be on the bill. Explains the well-rounded musical director, “I really did a lot of research to find the right fit for what we were doing here—a celebration of life and music.”
Minor wanted a diversity of soul and style, so he reached out to artists from Ghana and Niger and back to Mexico. When asked whether funk would be in the house, Minor says he asked Bootsey Collins and other funketeers but “they weren’t available.”
He also “had to turn away people who wanted to be a part of it …” After all, he had just three hours to get it all in.
To get things started, Minor, who conceived the festival, hosted it and did triple duty as house bandleader, called up Stevie Wonder to the stage to talk about how the concert benefits music education—specifically the Music Matters part of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles Program. It’s this program that caught Minor’s attention. The headliner hopes to put out a CD with all the performers on it—a kind of latter-day Quincy Jones record focused solely on soul music.
Wonder ended his opening remarks with, “Soul is about something coming from the heart … When I think of soul, I think of the color of your heart and the color of your soul …”
In other words, soul is not black or white, says the ‘Master Blaster.’
Thereafter, Bombino and his eight brightly adorned dancers, arms flailing with soul, rocked to the driving Berber rhythms of “Agadez,” while the red-suited Soul Seekers offered a fresh perspective on Chicago bluesy soul on “Trouble In My Way.”
Japanese American singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd sang of “Paraty,” a tune about a town in Brazil with a decidedly Jobim vibe.
Ceci Bastida, who’s from Mexico but lives in L.A., somehow skillfully wove the two disparate genres of soul and punk on “Controlar,” while Rocky Dawuni of Ghana inspired the crowd to “Get Up Stand Up” à la Bob Marley.
Charles Bradley, known as the “Screaming Eagle of Soul,” got a standing O for his screamish homage to James Brown on “The World is Going Up in Flames,” as well as to Otis Redding on “My Lover’s Prayer.” Grace Potter, dressed in Tina Turner attire, played a soulful guitar and successfully got the audience up on “Proud Mary.”
After a decidedly international first half and intermission, out came one of the highlights of the evening—Janelle Monae, who opened with two of her biggest hits, “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” complete with a little James Brown interlude—cape and all! But it was when she created a new classic version of “Smile” that folks sat up and took notice. Who knew this slight-of-build singer could blow like this! She ended with MJ’s “I Want You Back,” with everybody showing off their soulful’70s dance moves.
Sharon Jones’ set included “She Ain’t a Child No More” and “I’ll Still Be True,” a slow blues tune in 6/4 time. Her “Mercy Mercy Me” led right into Minor’s exploration of a very grown-up sounding YOLA on “What’s Going On.”
Headliner Stevie Wonder took the crowd for a walk down a soulful lane from the ‘50s, doing supreme justice to Jesse Belvin’s “Good Night, My Love” and “Guess Who”; Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” and “(What a) Wonderful World”; Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” (which he said was co-written by Berry Gordy); and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”
Then came “Superstition”—and what was supposed to be a whole Stevie Wonder walk down the Stevie Wonder Lane of classics. But it was not to be: By this time—about 10: 20 p.m.—with the concert running waaay over, the audience had to settle for a brief “Higher Ground” encore.
Maybe there’s a second annual soul festival in the offing?