John Legend joined by Amir Thompson, and The Roots, turned the GRAMMY Museum’s intimate 200 seat Clive Davis Theatre into a coliseum of social consciousness with the gut wrenching power of their new CD WAKE UP! Even before the evening started, there was buoyancy in the air that you couldn’t quite put your foot on. Everyone seemed to know one another and be ready for this sold-out show. The stage didn’t look much different than usual since it’s always reconfigured to accommodate the guest. What was different was that there weren’t the two high directors chairs for the usual interview. There was a spotless ebony concert grand piano, a simple – truly simple – drum set, a couple of guitars on their stands, an organ with a small keyboard off to the side. And one chair. That was it.
The stage was as unencumbered as the evening turned out to be; just Grammy Museum director Bob Santelli effortlessly and casually moderating an evening that, in contrast, was composed of sophisticatedly raw music of social consciousness. Not music whining about social injustice with the cure being blind faith and naïve hope. These were songs from the 60’s and 70’s that told powerful stories and presented meaningful messages of possibilities through their powerful music. This music was relevant forty years ago and has exceeded relevancy when witnessing today’s cultural and political behavior.
This is exactly what John Legend’s intent was when he started work on this project in 2008. The project was to be a covers album of songs from that time, which would capture the sense of then and bring it to now. We were at war then, and we’re still at war now. This music had the advantage of being at least 40 years old and the musical and political acumen that accompanies such a time span. WAKE UP! puts it all put to good use in whatever musical form will serve it best: blues, R&B, rap, gospel, reggae, etc.
The actual Q&A was done with Legend seated at the piano, Amir seated near him at his drums, and Bob Santelli leading the evening. What’s interesting is that Santelli is much closer to the era that the generated this music than either Legend or ?uestlove, which added another dimension to the dialogue. And it was a dialogue. Not too much stuff about personal history or anecdotes unless it related to the album. Just a bit about early musical influences that were important, which, of course, are reflected in the album.
WAKE UP! isn’t just a new CD of songs about of the urgency for change and reform, this is about being proactive as a counterpoint to reactive. It’s the difference between “revolution” and “protest”. This is about actively doing something rather than just talking about it. Amir tells a great story about how his type of involvement initially gave him a feeling of being like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and not being allowed to play in any reindeer games; how he felt with his political involvement being initially expressed through Hip-Hop. A very obtuse analogy but certainly understandable. This is about getting your message out there anyway you can even if it’s not always the acceptable such as passing out pamphlets but rather getting it into the recording studio and then out.
The songs on WAKE UP! all have their stories. Each song had to have brought back memories and associations for everyone in the audience. Eugene McDaniels’ “Compared to What”, which is on the album, was one of the anthems of this time and also became a signature song of Les McCann when he played it at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1969. McCann himself played it here in town just last December. Different time, same impact; something not to be forgotten – ever. This evening, too, had a performance that was a one of a kind experience. Bill Withers was in the audience whose song “I Can’t Write Left Handed” is one of the most moving songs of the era. Mr. Wither wrote this as a soliloquy from a mortally wounded soldier. Legend starts it out with this dirge-like gospel back- up as he explains the origins of the song performed by Withers at Carnegie Hall in 1973. Withers had met this wounded soldier and when he asked him how he was doing the soldier replied that he was doing all right now. Gettin’ shot at didn’t bother him. It was gettin’ shot that shook him up. “The done shot me in my shoulder, and I can’t write left-handed. Could someone write this letter to mama?” The story evolves, as does the music with the culmination of Captain Kirk Douglas coming downstage to play one of the most emotional and amazing soloes. It moves from spectacular to almost unwatchable raw passion in its intimacy. His was a performance that told a whole story and when it seemed there couldn’t be more, there was more, and then more and more until the floor was actually vibrating underneath us with some otherworldly energy. The audience rose to its feet with hands above their heads clapping, but there was more. As Douglas slowly moved back upstage; the sound didn’t retreat, it didn’t diminish, it just had that quality of going somewhere into the distance like that lone bag piper piper playing Amazing Grace at a funeral and fading off into the known of the unknown. It was then that ?uestlove took us to that other place with a drum solo that just reinforced and strengthened the mysterious intensity of what had just transpired.
And that was it. We were all taken and left somewhere else, and everyone dazedly, slowly left with a sense of unity that was created by a truly spectacular evening at the GRAMMY Museum.
It’s not too late to WAKE UP!