McLaren Park Funk Project
McLaren Park | San Francisco, CA | 10.12.02

On Saturday, October 12th the McLaren Amphitheater was filled with Bay Area funk fans enjoying the sunny weather, cold beer, Cajun cuisine and, of course, heapin’ helpings of the finest funk. One of the Bay Area’s most promising instrumental bands, Urban Funk Machine was winding up a set packed with their funk- and jazz-inspired virtuosity. As Master of Ceremonies for the day, I had the opportunity to see from the event from all sides. Throughout the day I was behind the scenes, in front of the crowd and as a member of the audience. My MC duties done for the time being, I had joined the audience to check out some of UFM’s set. Lead guitarist Scott Woods’ tone was rich and sweet as a double-decker s’more. His rapid-fire single picking style and the sanctifying organ work of Eamonn “The Nugget” Flynn, keyboardist on The Commitments motion picture soundtrack, had those in the audience who hadn’t heard UFM wondering how they could have missed ‘em. Bassist Andrew Birchett packed the trunk full and, despite being the newest member of the band, drummer Darius Minaee was so deep in the pocket he had lint comin’ out his ears. I left the crowd to UFM, who had them well in hand, and made my way to the backstage where the pace was just as frenetic, but for completely different reasons: Melvin and his band hadn’t arrived yet.

The night before the Melvin Sparks Band had played a gig in New York and hopped a red-eye to make the McLaren show. Periodic calls to the driver slated to pick them up yielded news of flight delays and difficulty locating luggage. By the time they were trying to relax for a bit on the drive across the Bay Bridge, UFM was nearing the close of their set—there was little time to spare. As UFM struck up a final encore, they arrived. There was just enough time to for the band to splash some water on their faces, get a plate full of jambalaya, and start tuning up during the set change. DJ Dr. Watch spun “Funky Nassau” and I thanked everybody for helping Shindig Productions and our more than 40 volunteers make MPFP II a reality for the second year running.

As he ambled onstage and took his seat, I began recounting Sparks’ days at the heart of The Upsetters, the R&B show band that backed such names as Otis Wilson, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, little Stevie Wonder and The Supremes. I added to this mention of the more than 100 jazz albums featuring Melvin with artists including Grover Washington, Jr., Lou Donaldson, Hank Crawford, Jimmy McGriff and Jack McDuff. Too add to his discography, Melvin recently released a new album entitled What You Hear is What You Get and toured with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, gaining the ears of an entirely new generation. The man is still in high gear after all these years, but the true display of what all this history means was made clear by the set that followed. From the second the first note was struck, the sounds coming from the speakers compelled many of those working backstage, and those volunteering throughout the park, to find an excuse to take a break and become a part of the crowd bearing witness to the amazing talent of Melvin and his band.

While some knowledge of Melvin’s studio work might prepare an audience for what they hear, the Melvin Sparks Band is best heard live. This is not only due to the sound they generate, but also to one thing that can’t even be approximated on a recording: Melvin’s presence. The beaming smile and Zen-like bearing of Sparks is in stark contrast to his sleight-of-hand fretwork, a contrast that conspired to make many members of the audience shake their heads in disbelief, or laugh out loud with glee when he’d break into a solo or even toss out a couple of grace notes. His speed and precision is countered by what appears to be effortless execution. His body swayed slowly back and forth in time, wavering like a candle flame, and what he was giving off was just as hot. Add to this spectacle the supporting cast of his current touring band - saxophonist Joe (Herbie J.) Hrbek, Hammond B3 wizard George Papageorge, bassist Derek Layes and drummer Carter McLean - and you’ve got a cross-generational conflagration of soul music. Passion passed from maestro to musician. Artists like Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Frank Zappa found one sure way to keep their music new: by surrounding themselves with younger musicians. By passing along their experience and technique in trade for youthful exuberance and an affinity for risk, they get a mix that, when combined, creates the volatile fuel of innovation.

Melvin and the band burned through several cuts from his new album, from Sparks’ “The Governor” to his cover of James Brown’s “Funky Good Time.” The band’s stamina never wavered; each tune was as rock solid as if they’d played it 1000 times, yet they played with such ferocity that they each sounded straight from the butcher. Trading licks, a wink and a nod, a smile and a laugh—each band member was evidently having as good a time onstage as the fortunate fans in the audience. As the set reached one of its many peaks, Melvin broke into a bulletproof, up-tempo interpretation of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance.” The men who made the original, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, Elvin Jones and, of course, Tyner himself, would marvel at the meat Melvin and his boys had put on its bones. Serendipitously, I’d had Tyner’s album The Real McCoy in my car at the time of the festival. After the day was over, I listened again to Tyner’s version. The sound of Melvin’s band was obviously far from the studio sound of Tyner’s original cut from ’67: Melvin’s version dripped with soul and stunk with funk. It was voluptuous with all that entails—no edges whatsoever. Tight and juicy as an andouille sausage ready to burst over glowing coals, the band nailed every unison line and flew on every solo. If the reaction of the audience was any indication, there was much more passion dancing goin’ on than any straight ahead jazz audience might muster. Clearly Melvin and McCoy each have their place, but Melvin and the band had ventured to the right place that day, and brought us all along for the ride.

But the event that truly marked the day was, by this time, only a rumor. Co-organizer of the McLaren Park Funk Project II, Scott Woods had posed the idea of a jam with Melvin and headliner Zigaboo Modeliste, though nothing concrete had been decided. The two had never met before, though each was well aware of the other’s contributions to the funk cannon, and there, backstage, as Zig listened to Melvin’s set, the deal was done. Excited whispers went around the crew as the set change began to take place—the summit was taking place and we were there to see it.

Zigaboo Modeliste
Zigaboo Modeliste | McLaren Park Funk Fest
San Francisco | October 2002
The crowd that had previously laid their blankets in the shade now picked them up and followed the sun across the seats and the lawn of the amphitheater as the temperature began to drop. I was fully prepared to keep the crowd fired up and give Zig the intro he deserved. I planned to relate how Zig and fellow Meter’s founder, bassist Geroge Porter, Jr., had recently been named as one of the top ten rhythm sections of all time by Drum! magazine, an accolade that only began to explain the breadth of his influence on modern percussion, from jazz to funk to hip-hop. I planned to recount his recordings with The Meters, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Robert Palmer (back in the good days when Palmer was sneakin’ Sally through the alley…), Lee Dorsey and Keith Richards, and remind the crowd that his beats are liberally sampled and his skills as in demand as ever. Finally, I wanted to tell them all how honored we were to have, as Downbeat Magazine recently dubbed him, “The Godfather of Groove” with us at the McLaren Park Funk Project for the second year running. But, by the time the levels were right, the stage was set, and the engineer finally gave the thumbs-up, the band launched right into it. I chucked the intro and hopped into the crowd, figuring Zig’s snare could drum up all inspiration the audience needed. How right I was. The unmistakable martial cadence of New Orleans funk began to beat through the speakers as Zigaboo struck up the groove.

As Zig invited Melvin onstage to play a couple of tunes with the Aahkesstrah, the audience erupted into applause and whistles. Melvin steadily made his way from the wings with his Gibson at his side, took his seat and plugged in with an electrified pop. With that jolt, it was as if not only his guitar, but the entire amphitheater had been amplified by this meeting of the masters. The music was a little more loud, the crowd a lot more raucous, and the brisk dusk a bit more balmy.

The straight blues of “Going to New York” kicked off the summit and the grin grew ever wider on Melvin’s face—Zig was taking him back to his blues roots, when a young Melvin sat in with B.B. King at the age of 13. But this was just the beginning of the march through history. Both Melvin and Zig showed that they new how to take it all the way back to the common root of the music we’d heard that day. And just as the New Orleans blues slowly evolved into funk, the blues of “Going to New York” slowly morphed into a funky 1,2,3 as Zig led the procession all the way from New York to “Africa,” Meters-style. Members of the crowd sang along with the chorus as Melvin lit up his solos, making runs up and down the neck of his guitar, prompting Zig to pound it out harder as the audience chanted “AF-RI-CA!” By this time, the sun had completely left the park and the cold began to creep in. Just as “Africa” began to slow and the audience caught its collective breath, Zig began walking into another Meters’ classic, “Chicken Strut.” Throughout the medley, Zig kept at it, rarely coming up for air, and Melvin would look over his all-knowing grin as these two men whose combined career spans more than 80 years (yet who are separated in age by only two years) showed the young folk how it was done.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to describe what we saw, as it was more a state of being that a performance. It was funk not simply as a form of music but as a way of life. Funk has always been an all-inclusive art form. One of the founding fathers of funk, Sly Stone, would pick kids out of high school and throw them in with older musicians based on his faith in their talent and their love of the music, as opposed to their color or background. Of all forms, funk is for the people. Traditionally, it’s been overlooked as one of the lesser forms, but a new generation of technically sophisticated musicians—those that might have opted for a more classical jazz career—have imbued it with a new life and revived its legitimacy. I tend to think of it as a most uniquely Bay Area style: its politics have always been progressive, it’s always interested in a good time. Funk is all about having a seriously good time. There’s a logic to its illogic: it’s a party with a conscience.

Melvin said his goodbyes to Zig and the audience and moseyed off stage, a little more spring in his step. Zig asked us all to thank Melvin, and those who had braved the cold didn’t let the weather affect the degree of their appreciation for the event they’d just witnessed. It’s hard to beat a free day of funk at one of San Francisco’s best outdoor venues, but to have the opportunity to hear these modern masters play together on the same stage was truly unique.

Melvin Sparks and Zigaboo Modeliste
Melvin Sparks and Zigaboo Modeliste
San Francisco | October 2002
Afterwards Zig commented on the summit: “I was honored to have Melvin Sparks sit in with the band for some soulful jams. It was a FIFI: a funky, intense, fun, inspirational historic jam with Melvin! I thank all of my fans, friends and family for joining us today! Zigaboo Modeliste and the Aahkesstra wants everyone to know that wonderful projects like this help keep the funk alive, and in the word ‘funk’ you will see it says ‘fun.’ And that it was!”

The continued success of the all-volunteer effort of Shindig Productions and the McLaren Park Funk Project proves that there’s a dedicated audience for live funk in San Francisco. There’s every indication that the Bay Area is undergoing a funk revival, with its great tradition of local funk bands, up-and-coming production companies like Shindig and Sunset Promotions, and the enthusiastic support of several public and private venues, funk is on the rise.

Words: Matt Markovich
Photos: Jason Tinacci
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 11/14/02]

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