Serious fans of vintage soul, funk and doo-wop would practically trip over themselves to hop in a time machine and head back to a mid-60s Motor City for an opportunity to see almost any act from Motown’s original roster do their thing, at their prime, under the first rays of what would become an international spotlight that still glows some 50 years after label founder Berry Gordy signed his first artist.
Since that simply won’t be possible any time in the foreseeable future, those same fans would do well to hedge their bets on Orange County, California’s Aloe Blacc and his live show, which pays ode, in its spirit, to a bygone era.
The Stones Throw recording artist (first known to hip hop fans as the voice of emcee/production duo Emanon, with indie rap producer-of-the-hour Exile) brought his soulful presence and melodies to Le Belmont theatre in Montreal on a balmy Saturday evening in early June for his third performance in the city in a single year – proof alone that Aloe Blacc gives the people what they want.
After a short intro warm-up by his six-piece, the Grand Scheme, Blacc took the stage with humility, when any artist of his calibre and range could just as easily be forgiven their hubris. Greeting the crowd with a grin and a word of welcome, the rapper-turned-singer took no time to get the crowd moving and singing along to “Hey, Brother”, a song for cuckolded lovers everywhere. Maybe this was meant as a subtle warning, as it did not take long for the ladies in the house to swoon under Blacc’s charming spell.
Slinking around the stage in rhythmic two-step, Blacc checks in on his musicians in the style of band leaders like James Brown, who didn’t earn his reputation for excellence by facing adulating crowds without paying mind to the players and their chops. Blacc doesn’t need to worry much, it seems, as members of the Grand Scheme – some of them Red Bull Music Academy alumni - seem timed to a collective metronome that keeps them a half-millisecond sharper than even the tightest live soul/funk outfits out there jamming today.
Blacc and the band belted through their set without pause, alternating between upstroke funk and soul grooves, downtempo blues, one-drop reggae - and yes, even a tiny bit of hip hop - sexily and seamlessly. Highlights included the love-struck “You Make Me Smile” and a smouldering rendition of new single “Loving You is Killing Me”.
Their cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” was a personal show-stealer, but it would be hard to match the electricity in the air when the opening notes of Blacc’s set-closing mainstream hit “I Need a Dollar” rang from the speakers after a solid-hour of uninterrupted showmanship. Encores rounded out the set with blues-ey, ballsy cover of MJ’s “Billie Jean”, and of course “Good Things”, the title track to Blacc’s newest LP.
Smokey Robinson or Stevie Wonder can still knock your socks off today, live, with their classics. But Aloe Blacc is of his time, and his time is now.
Darcy MacDonald is a music columnist and regular freelance feature contributor to Montreal Mirror.