UPPER MARLBORO, MD. — On a chilly blustery, full-moon-lit night, five legendary RnB acts steamed-up the stage during what should be considered a night to remember in suburban Washington, DC., also known as the DC, Marlyand, Virginia (DMV) area.
The bill which was dubbed Seventies Soul Sounds, featured the likes of Ray, Goodman & Brown, New Birth, The Emotions, Heatwave and Blue Magic. In toto, they all brought the proverbial house down during a three-hour performance that attracted throngs of old-school-loving audience members who still groove on the still-relevant sounds of a by-gone era.
The throw-back performance was held at the Upper Marlboro Showplace Arena and harkened to a time when soul music was king, and live musicianship ruled the Black music industry, long before two turntables and pre-recorded music tracks became an accepted and legitimate performance standard.
In fact what stood out on this Friday night, Nov. 7, was the fact that each group proudly featured live musicians, real bands – just like the good ole days. Also, the ambiance had the feel of a good old fashioned “Battle of the Bands” – a non-volatile, competitive air when individual acts pridefully gave it their best to outdo their competitors who were also on the bill.
The announcers and performers appropriately gave credit to show promoters Let’s Groove Productions for their debut promotion. The PA system also projected strong vocals throughout the large venue.
Although, the turnout was a bit sparse in an attempt to fill the spacious 5,000-seat arena — it was a major challenge considering that Stevie Wonder was working at nearby Verizon Center and ’80s funk stars Loose Ends were performing at the Howard Theater – both on the same evening.
Regardless, the ’70s soul bill was a treat for all the old-school funksters in attendance. The act was so appealing that Sirius-XM radio deejays promoted it over their ‘Soul Town’ satellite radio channel airwaves.
Ray, Goodman & Brown, led by original member Billy Brown offered an exciting brand of balladry that was well-accepted by the approximately 3,000 folks who dotted the arena, largely known for equestrian events.
“Look At Me, I’m in Love,” “Not on the Outside” from 1969 and “Special Lady” were all crowd-pleasers, especially the ladder which is recalled as the group’s best-selling crossover from 1979.
Missing was “Love on a Two-Way Street,” recorded before the group’s name-change from its original moniker, The Moments. They became RGB due to legal issues.
New Birth featured a four-piece vocal lineup which included original lead singer, Leslie Wilson.
Their vocal harmonies were exquisite and were best displayed on “Been Such a Long Time, “Wild Flower,” the Bobby Womack-penned, “I Can Understand It” and “Dream Merchant,” the latter which drew the loudest crowd response.
Next on the bill were The Emotions. Their opening tune, “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” was appropriately upbeat, exciting and generated a special onstage energy. They calmed the crowd with hit ballads “Don’t Ask My Neighbor” and the spiritually-soothing “Blessed,” a surprise tune on the playlist considering that the song was never a single-release, but garnered enough attention based on the ‘Rejoice’ LP strong sales during Summer 1977.
But it was 1979’s “Boogie Wonderland” which re-energized the audience Friday night. Though Wanda Hutchinson was easily recognizable, and she introduced us to her daughter and a new trio member, it was more difficult to determine if a third member was an actual Hutchinson sister due to vague group introductions.
Meanwhile, HEATWAVE included a funky-fiery self-contained group of young men who obviously were not of the Dayton, Ohio original group. Their energy compensated for co-founder of the group, Keith Wilder who sat in what appeared to be a wheelchair at center-stage. A group member later announced that Wilder had been a massive stroke victim in April 2013, but has recovered well enough to perform again. He received a thunderous applause during his strong performance of the group’s all-time classic, “Always and Forever.”
The group’s other co-founder, Johnny Wilder died in May 2006, after being paralyzed from a 1979 car accident. “Ain’t No Half Steppin” and “Mind Blowin Decisions” were also highlights.
During the last two songs, Wilder stood from the chair and displayed that he was rehabilitated enough to do some minor choreography. A fellow group member then acknowledged Wilder as their leader, founder, a miracle and an example of God’s healing powers.
The audience responded with holy-hand raisings, which were very appropriate gestures considering that this venue was once the site of First Baptist Church of Glenarden.
Prior to headliners, Blue Magic hitting the stage, their band played a pre-arranged fanfare which reflected brief pieces of the group’s hits. When the PA announcer brought them on, Blue Magic – entered the stage clad in stingy-brimmed, white top-hats and stylish tuxedos, with a throw-back flair from the days of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
Leader, Vernon Sawyer should be commended for maintaining the Philly group’s legendary sound and look. Their choreography remains uniquely Blue Magic, while reflecting minor influences of early Temptations with J-5 robot-like synchronicity.
The crowd reacted nicely to their opening uptempo Broadway-like groover, “Welcome to the Club,” followed by “What’s Come Over Me,” and their debut hit, a blue lights in the basement ballad called “Spell” from 1974. Obviously missing from the playlist was “Three Ring Circus,” though “Sideshow” compensated by showcasing the quartet’s unique dance approach.
This bill also revealed the once-mighty impact of first-tenor lead vocalists from back in the day; crooners in the mold of Eddie Kendricks, The Dramatics’ Ron Banks, Johnny Carter (The Dells) and Lakeside’s Otis Stokes.
That powerful falsetto idiom is sorely missing from today’s music, but on this night, the ladies strongly reacted to all the lofty, high notes resonating from diaphragms of the guys who “chirped” the best.
Also noticeably absent were live horns. Not one brass or woodwind instrument graced the stage throughout this bill. Instead, keyboard players utilized their electronic 88s to compensate for four or five instrumentalists – economical and technological signs of the times.
But, all in all, the entire performance was a treat and one that’ll be recalled by the many folks who were blessed to musically stroll down memory lane – one more time.
(Editor’s note: A similar old school show featuring Evelyn Champagne King, Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes, The Delfonics and Blue Magic is scheduled for the same venue on Saturday, Nov. 29.)