The New Parish
I discovered a new music venue in the East Bay on Friday night called The New Parish. It’s a gem of a place tucked away on 18th street just peripheral to the heart of downtown Oakland. I got lost trying to find it, and ended up driving in circles a few times before I realized where it was. As nondescript of an entrance as you could imagine, I walked up and it felt like I was about to enter a secret society meeting. Based on their typical lineups, it’s no wonder I hadn’t heard of the place. From what I can tell, they present an eclectic variety of pop, hip hop, indie rock, and alternative performers, but Friday it was a playbill made for me.
I arrived just as soul singer Martin Luther was stepping on stage with his band to perform Beatles covers. Sounds like an unusual combination, but my friend informed me that Luther played one of the main roles in the film “Across the Universe,” a story loosely based around 34 different songs by the British sensations. What struck me most about the performance was the transferability of the Beatles’ old rock songs to a more soulful and more modern genre. While My Guitar Gently Weeps was the highlight for me. After striking up a conversation with the woman next to me, I asked her if she was a fan of the Beatles. She replied not really, but admitted that she probably would not have known that the songs Luther sang were not his own R&B compositions. The point of this discussion is simple: a good tune can conform to any genre and grab its listeners.
Martin Luther has a likable voice, and one I could not quite pin down. Slightly nasally, slightly raspy, but each time I was ready to underestimate him he would bust out a high note and leave me in quiet admiration. I would not say the same for his band. Guitar, bass, bassoon, piano, cello, and percussion musicians all shared the stage, but none were quite up to the level of their maestro. As they jumped into a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” I picked up a few bum notes in the song’s four part harmony intro. Okay, I’m a hard ass, I know, but I go to performances because I want to hear better musicians than myself, and with the exception of Luther that was not the case. Fortunately for me, Martin Luther was only the opening act. Headlining the show was none other than the transcendent Me’shell Ndegeocello.
I had pleasuring of attending Me’shell’s concert at Yoshi’s last summer, which only heightened my already high opinion of her as a musician and an artist. In June, the theme of her show was Gil Scott Heron covers. If you don’t know who Heron is, especially if you love hip hop and/or spoken word poetry, go look him up. I’ve only heard recordings of Gil, but Me’shell’s live version of “The Bottle” was phenomenal. Me’shell is an expert at putting her own spin on existing songs. She also did a knockout version of Ready for the World’s “Love You Down.” As before, this show was based upon covers of another significant musical figure – Prince.
Whereas Luther instilled an introspective vibe with his slower renditions of 1960s music, Me’shell brought the noise on some of Prince’s older and more obscure tracks. Basically, she rocked out. Which brings me back to my discussion of The New Parish. The club is constructed in what I would call a Fillmore style, with limited seating areas along the walls and a large dance floor in front of the stage. It also boasts a nice second level with a balcony and more seating areas. I give it an A for design. The atmosphere was very positive, and because the show was sold out there were quite a lot of people in the house.
Besides listening to the music, obviously, I spent a good deal of time trying to gauge the crowd. Everyone seemed attentive, but I couldn’t tell if they liked the music or not, despite their considerable applause after each song. Me’shell (herself a singer and bassist), guitarist Chris Bruce, and drummer Deantoni Parks moved as a unit through the rhythms of each piece, with no shortage of funk. This was the kind of show during which at the very least your feet can’t help but tap along. And with the dance floor to boot, I expected to see dudes gettin’ down on it. I was wrong.
Probably three or four folks were actually dancing, and I tried to figure out why this was the case. Maybe the beat was too quick. Maybe they couldn’t figure out some of the time changes that Deantoni was throwing in. Maybe they didn’t care for that rendition of Prince. But after every song they clapped enthusiastically, and during the next song barely moved. I wanted to dance, and I did a little bit, but I had half a mind to shove my wave into the front of the crowd, grab a mike, and tell everyone to get their ass moving. It was befuddling. I asked the woman next to me why no one was dancing. She had no idea. She was kind of at a loss for words the whole night, but that’s a different blog…
I will admit not all of the songs she played were to my liking, but they were sure as hell danceable. I love the way that Me’shell loses herself in the music sometimes, and I only wish her audience could have reciprocated. Two other items are worth mentioning. First, while I give Parish an A on design, I give it a C on sound tech. They took almost an hour to break down Luther’s set and set up Me’shell’s. Me’shell probably asked the sound guy to fix x, y, or z every other song. At a professional venue, that is unacceptable, not only for the performers’ sake but for the audience’s. And secondly, back to the audience’s reception of the music, I never found out how they could exhibit such an appreciation for it and yet display no visible enthusiasm while listening. I’ll have to think about this a bit more.