Sunday, October 3, 2010

Curtis Mayfield: Curtis/Live! (1971)

Has there ever been a sub-genre as electrifying, as cool, or, at its best, as transcendentally moving as 1970s soul?  Some forty years after their original release, the greatest soul records still shine like burnished steel, still radiate much of the brutal honesty, the visionary hope, the frustrated bitterness that they did when they first appeared.  Lyrically and musically, the stuff goes on speaking to us with an urgency and, in many cases, an operatic poignancy almost unique among the music of the last several decades.  When I think of the best American soul artists--like many people, I'd imagine--I think of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield; they're forever paired together in my mind, perhaps unfairly, a tandem representing the twin blossoms of the Detroit and Chicago soul scenes, respectively.  Of the two, I've always had more admiration for Mayfield, a musician who has held me consistently in thrall for the last decade or so, a fixture through all my countless listening phases.  Although Gaye is the one who's received more accolades, by far--he's the "Prince of Soul," after all--when the smoke clears, it may be that Mayfield will emerge as the more awesomely gifted of the two, the guy who, to speak simply, wrote more great songs and was more genuinely bent on effecting social change through his art.  Indeed, anyone who has listened to their respective masterpieces, What's Going On and Superfly, side by side, knows that the latter is superior: What's Going On is essentially three stunningly good songs placed at the beginning, middle, and end of the album, with filler interspersed between; Superfly, on the other hand, is hair-raisingly good from start to finish.  Gaye claimed that with What's Going On he finally began "writing with his head instead of his penis," but even after that record he reverted to making songs about fucking, his enduring theme; Mayfield, though, spent his entire career crafting tough, cerebral, and often overwhelmingly beautiful--if tragic--jeremiads about the nightmarish plight of America's inner city, elegies on drug dealers left to die on corners, and celebratory songs reminding black people that they were beautiful, winners second to none, in case they'd forgotten.  We are still sifting through his mind-boggling legacy.

Curtis/Live! is one of Mayfield's finest recordings, and one of the most intriguing live albums of the decade. On a freezing January night in 1971, Mayfield and three hired session men--Master Henry Gibson (percussion), Craig McMullen (rhythm guitar), and Joe "Lucky" Scott (bass)--appeared at The Bitter End, the intimate club on Greenwich Village's Bleecker Street.  The legendary performance that ensued is one defined by a sense of hushed intensity: Mayfield and his three-piece group hustle through these songs--most of them culled from his recently-released Curtis (1970), as well as the records he'd made with The Impressions--with a muffled urgency that derives power from restraint, a stripped-down rawness that makes for a fascinating set of takes on the album versions.  What drives this set above all is Gibson's wizardry on drums.  Gibson, a vastly underrated drummer who happens to be the world's most recorded percussionist (he appeared on over 1200 albums), veritably gallops along on drums and, occasionally, congas, lighting a fire under Mayfield's ass while the latter joyously pours out his trademark falsetto.  Motherfucker can play.  And, well, the songs themselves are simply a delight, contagiously danceable charts featuring Mayfield's patented social commentary, with political "raps" sprinkled in between: "For a country so far advanced, we seem to be able to do everything but get along.  There's even a bit of humor in it, when you think of such people as Agnew," he muses.  The crowd is clearly eating up the whole of it; Mayfield's rallying cries for black power are especially galvanizing.  "We're so goddamm undecided," he complains on the excellent opener, 'Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey).'  "I'm black and I'm proud!"  By the close of the set, his listeners are obviously transfixed.  One tries to imagine them crowded together in this rather small venue, struggling to keep warm but also utterly enchanted by the show, perhaps even conscious of the fact that they were witnessing a historic performance.

So that's really it.  The entirety of the album is very good, but in some ways the stretch beginning with "Check Out Your Mind" and continuing through "The Makings of You" is the highest point, and is worth the price of the whole record.  This last song is simply one of the loveliest, most unabashedly sweet pieces I've ever heard, and Mayfield gives it a fine treatment here, though I think I'll always prefer the lushly produced studio version.  Also worthy of note is a highly charged rendition of "Superfly" towards the end, a bonus track from a later show that was included on the compact disc reissue, and that gives a sneak peek of great things to come in Mayfield's career.  This is a record that catches Mayfield just as he's hitting his stride, and there's something wonderfully fun about hearing him discover his remarkable powers as a songwriter and performer.  Wear it out, especially late at night, when it seems to sound best.

1. Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey) (6:56)
2. Rap (0:26)
3. I Plan to Stay a Believer (3:26)
4. We're a Winner (4:47)
5. Rap (0:51)
6. We've Only Just Begun (3:44)
7. People Get Ready (3:47)
8. Rap (0:34)
9. Stare and Stare (6:12)
10. Check Out Your Mind (3:53)
11. Gypsy Woman (3:48)
12. The Makings of You (3:28)
13. Rap (2:01)
14. We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue (6:46)
15. (Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go (9:27)
16. Stone Junkie (8:05)
17. Superfly (3:56)
18. Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey) (Single Version) (3:16)

No comments:

Post a Comment