Lenny Kravitz :: 04.16.05 :: Electric Factory :: Philadelphia, PA
Barnstorming across the globe in support of his seventh full length, Baptism, Lenny Kravitz has been a fully-ordained rock star for a long time. He really has nothing left to prove, however clouds of doubt, critique, and endless barrels of Haterade have dogged him throughout his extensive career. Kravitz came of age with his debut, Let Love Rule, in the hairband era, and has transcended grunge, boy bands, nu-metal/rap-rock, pop punk, scream-o, and whatever else is being sold as music by the major labels. Even dubious album efforts, like his most recent or the decidedly contemporary Lenny before it, have done little to tarnish his arena-rock godliness or to shrink his arena-sized ego. Both were on display in fine form on a chilly spring evening in April.
With nearly two decades in the game (even longer if you count his 'Romeo Blue' era), Kravitz has gone from channeling/pillaging the classic rock riff/song book and paying homage to his idols, to creating a niche for himself; both in the rock and roll canon and within the commercial pop arena. But despite those labels, Lenny continues to lay down some of the finest funk-rock on the planet. Long past critics dismissing his art as imitation, Kravitz is now an institution all his own and both a student of and a flag bearer for rock and roll. Well into the second leg of the tour, Kravitz and Co. rolled into Philadelphia to revisit the cavernous interior of the Electric Factory, a converted warehouse just north of Olde City.
For this recent outing in support of a very average record, Lenny brought with him a bulbous ten piece band, complete with three-piece horn section, three backup vocalists, and some longtime SoCal cohorts: skin-bashing queen Cindy Blackmon, axeman extraordinaire Craig Ross, and tenor man Harold Todd. The band filled up the large Electric Factory stage, and the aesthetics, lights, and general vibe were vivid - far brighter than the sinister, driven, and foreboding routine he delivered ten years earlier in this very room, then on tour behind the shadowy, edgier Circus. The lights went down just as the room filled with a myriad of different Lenny fans: the hipsters, the screaming ladies, the downtown rock cats, the classic rock dudes, and the stoners. The place was teeming.
A reworked version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" played through the P.A. as the band took the stage, establishing an aura of Seventies grandeur, both swanky and classy. Lenny paused to make eye contact with his band members (and a bevy of beauties hanging over the 2nd story bar railing) before launching into a killer one-two combo. Baptism's "Minister of Rock & Roll" came out of the gates with fury, its crunchy, basic riffage laying the foundation for the band to find itself within. In an early display of ego and showmanship, Lenny basked in adulation from his audience, arms stretched outward, seemingly soaking in the screams. This thoroughly contrived act was built into this tune and several other new songs in order to help create the minister/congregation responsive. "Minister" also featured the exuberant trombonist Troy "Trombone Shawty" Andrews. Next, during the swaggering funk of "Live" from the vastly underrated record 5, Lenny delved into the first of what would be several unforgiving and deliberate funk stomps. The stop/start chin-up strut Lenny has made his own was in full effect, complete with suggestive dance moves and his patented chicken-scratch geetar. With its lyrics complete with uplifting positive imagery, "Live" showcased the brass and reeds atop the grooves.
The first portion of the show focused on songs from the recently-released records and pointed to a mature and contemporary zone. A byproduct of this phase in his career has been some questionable material - simplistic pop ditties, too dumbed-down to come from an artist as talented and versatile as Kravitz. Post-Circus, much of his recorded output has been less than stellar. But in a live setting, Lenny is an absolutely thrilling performer, and his live revue is still a delightful romp through the chronicles of black music in America.
Kravitz was in the process of making a non-commercial, indulgent, straight-up funk album in Miami when he became filled with ideas of a different nature for the songs that would make up Baptism. He then jetted to New York City to walk the streets that Dylan, Lennon, and Jay Z walked, looking for lyrical inspiration. The change in approach is evident as he delivers the songs in a live setting. He's got those Jagger moves and that Marley-esque messianic posturing. He still employs similar tactics, but now they are his own.
He is undeniably a sex symbol in both song and image, akin to the likes of D'Angelo on the sweeter R&B. This was most evident on the beautiful, soul-filled "I Belong to You," also from 5. Lenny delivered several of his brilliant ballads, including new songs like "Lady," which slid in perfectly against the ageless love letter "It Ain't Over till its Over." The early Nineties hit, written to Lisa Bonet - his former wife and the mother of his daughter Zoe, remains a magnificent marriage of songcraft, raw emotion, and sexiness. Much to this writer's chagrin, Kravitz didn't play any of his paramount slow jams like "Sister," "Heaven Help," the spiritually-tinged "Believe," or "Black Girl."
Early in the Eighties, Mr. Romeo Blue was one of many Prince clones, and some of his greatest compositions are thinly-veiled homages to the Artist, like the exquisite piano ballad "Stand By My Woman," which Kravitz performed in all its dramatic grandeur. Lenny delivered this elaborate production with a showmanship and conviction that undermined any comparison. Continuing his Prince fixation, Kravitz rolled out the seductive, enchanting "Be" from his debut album Let Love Rule. Amidst Hammond organ warmth Lenny's band, led by the potency of Blackmon's drums, created a vibrant terrain, sweltering with the twists and turns within the lyrical and sonic inflections. Throughout this performance (and their career), his band chemistry allowed Lenny the freedom to "take it higher." Taking cues from the 'Godfather' James Brown, his pal Mick Jagger, Kravitz is as much a bandleader and musical director as he is a frontman.
Not everything worked, and there are valid reasons why some people dismiss Kravitz as radio rubbish. At the Electric Factory, good examples of this were few and far-between, yet evident in the enormous hit (and enormously annoying) "Fly Away," the ultimate ball-cap, frat-house, hemp-necklace, Rohypnol jam. The NFL stadium, NBA cheerleader, all around hokey "Dig In" has at times embarrassed this writer to be a fan of the artist who wrote and recorded these gems. "Calling All Angels," another new song, tried mightily but failed at similar formulas. Thankfully, the Velveeta (or in Philly's case - Whiz) was kept to a minimum.
Most Kravitz fans point to his first three records as brilliance; (this writer includes Circus as well) the same albums about which critics dogged him for emulating his heroes. His most exceptional, treasured songs come from Let Love Rule, Mama Said, and Are You Gonna Go My Way, and Lenny treated the Philadelphia faithful to some of his finest. The first of which came in the form of "Is There Any Love in Your Heart" - a Zepped-Out drums-n-guitars fest that screamed Seventies arena rock but with a certain funkiness and boastfulness that Lenny brings. The screaming Craig Ross solos and sheer sonic alchemy of the Gibson axes hijacked this tune and blasted skyward. Lenny explored his more psychedelic side in "Fields of Joy," the first song on Mama Said. This tune once reeked of John Lennon, but fourteen years later, the vocal harmonies and chugging power chords are pure Lenny with sweet rolling Hammond organ and Ross's exquisite leads.
Staying with Mama Said, Lenny whipped the Electric Factory massive into a frenzy with the irresistible heavy funk and the cocky fatback groove of "Always on the Run." The song was extended into a merciless, vigorous workout. Having lost his mother in recent years, the song now resonates with the conviction and intensity with which it's delivered. Possibly the best song in the Kravitz canon, it definitely ascends to new heights when delivered live, complete with weighty wailing guitars entrenched in a vicious battle. The orgasmic horn stabs that swell into tidal waves are akin to those of his former sax player, Karl Denson. To drive the funk through the ceiling and towards the aforementioned clouds, Lenny whipped out the evening's lone track from the criminally slept on Circus, "Tunnel Vision." This jam is the power of soul, a scorching workout with Jimi'd out dissonance, funk chords, and flavors that call out to the late Eddie Hazel, courtesy of Mr. Ross. Four-to-the-floor, electro-charged groove, and unremitting funk calisthenics, the song orbits a constellation near a Tiny Universe, but with Marshall stacks, arena-rock bombast, and hydraulic drums. The horn section got its shine on here as well, the jam traversing both Sly Stone and James Brown's established territory with funky reckless abandon.
The title track of Lenny's debut record is the archetypal Kravitz song. "Let Love Rule," which was penned and released in 1988, embodies both flower-power and dreadlocked positive vibration. There is also a soothing, George Martin-esque harmonic layering of the vocals. Appropriately enough for the Electric Church Tour, Lenny rearranged this song with a decidedly gospel flare, possibly the byproduct of hanging at a few Jazz Fests (2001, 2003, 2004) and soaking up the spiritual effects from the Gospel Tent. After all, Kravitz was the minister of rock and roll, and he led the now-tipsy and unwaveringly adoring faithful in a spirited rendition of this classic track.
The syrupy ballad "Again," the lone new track on the Greatest Hits compilation from a couple years ago, came complete with a soap opera-like video, corny love-lost lyrics, and a plodding beat. To me it was the beginning of the end for Len - a downward spiral for his newer compositions and an indicator of the contemporary, boring direction his music would be going. Like most of the multifaceted Kravitz catalogue, this song rocks when performed live, and the girls just seem to love it.
"Are You Gonna Go My Way" is still as dynamic, exciting, and robust as it was when it was conceived and first delivered twelve years ago. As an encore, it solidifies what has been established all night long: Lenny Kravitz rocks. The aggressiveness of the anthem, its cocky butterfly collar and pimp-strut, are quintessential to what Lenny is all about: the chunky riffage, the bombastic, colossal drums, and the bluster. The song made Lenny a household name and put Cindy Blackmon on the map with its incredible Mark Romanek video and amazing retro dueling-guitar atmosphere. On this night in Philly, Cindy Blackmon's relentless pounding fueled the band, and this song, into overdrive, with Craig Ross's Les Paul splendor cracking open the clouds so the bright rays could shine through. And there beneath the glowing rays, basking in the deafening adulation, dressed in the sharpest threads in any closet, behind bug-eyed shades and a feather boa, is a Rock God. He still "takes 'em to church," and if you go, it's a funky-ass sermon, as electric as it gets, and it's Gonna take you Higher!
JamBase | Illadelphia
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