Thursday’s triple-header began at Union Square, where despite an earlier threat of rain, Buzz Universe took the stage with a radiant sun setting across them. They gradually built a large crowd and entranced many with their galloping grooves delicately seasoned with Latin spices. The gig was a lot of fun, and I would have loved to have stayed, but after 30 minutes, I needed to get downtown to Castle Clinton for Destination 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Castle Clinton is an 1812-era fort that was built to protect Lower Manhattan but was never actually attacked. After outgrowing its use as a military installation, it eventually became a beer garden, a covered opera house, and then an immigrant processing center before losing its roof while returning to original form and serving as a national park. Now the River to River concert series hosts events there to a mostly seated, polite audience.
Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock, many of the city’s myriad of free concerts are paying tribute to the performers of the legendary three-day Aquarian Exposition. Last night, the incredibly talented Steven Bernstein and his Millennial Territory Orchestra (along with plenty of all-star guests, such as Bernie Worrell and Vernon Reid) paid homage to Sly & The Family Stone in a thrilling 90 minute performance that nearly rocked Castle Clinton to it’s nearly 200-year-old foundation.
After the band made their way through an instrumental opening, we found ourselves wriggling inside “Stand.” The gloves came off, and the funk was dropped in a serious way. I immediately took the advice of the lyrics and knew that sitting was no longer an option. I made my way into a roped-off area where the funked-out freaks cut loose with abandon while remaining separated from the seated folk, who looked at us with a mixture of curiosity and longing, as if they secretly wanted to join the wild animals in the cage but were too white to do so. Nevertheless, many of the heavy-assed crowd gave the band a standing ovation, and I knew that even though we were only one song in, this was going to be a stellar evening beyond compare.
“Fun” jammed straight into “M’lady,” which took about 2 seconds to initiate the liftoff sequence. This was so…damn…fon-kay. Some of the baddest reeds I’ll ever hear were swirling around this gem.
While the funkiness was fantastic, it wasn’t until Shilpa Ray took the stage that I realized we were witnessing greatness. After Bernstein reminded everyone of Sly’s famous quote “Don’t hate the black; don’t hate the white. If you get bit, hate the bite,” Ray began singing what may be the most cathartic version of “Everyday People” to be heard in the last 30 or so years. Accompanied by the ancient, hypnotic Eastern drones of her harmonium, she led the ensemble through a tremendously pensive rendition of this iconic song of togetherness. I hesitate to use these words because I think they have become little more than cliché, but I truly felt chills run up and down my spine while listening to her voice, a voice so simple and pure that it sounded like a matte finish. These lyrics were hitting home, and when a cynic like me is suddenly filled with an overwhelming rush of naïveté and love that can make you believe we can bring the whole world together— well, that’s the power of artistic genius. The Millennial Territory Orchestra took a brilliant work, reinvented it and twisted it through the dueling prisms of modern times and archaic musical styles to add a whole new level of depth and understanding.
That’s when I knew that this was no ordinary show. Nay, we were witnessing the Show of the Year.
Mind you, this is not a mark of exaggeration. There was a rare level of inventiveness and virtuoso musicianship on display in this show, and the results were deeply affecting everyone within earshot. Those who were seated, swayed with rapt attention, while those who stood experienced involuntary muscle spasms, as waves of kinetic energy rifled through the air.
And who the Hell takes Larry Graham’s signature funk-throttling electric basslines and divvies them up between an acoustic upright bass and a horn section while weaving in interludes laced with klezmer to yield stellar results? Steven Bernstein, that’s who!
There was no let up here. Every arrangement and performance of every song was nothing less than a building block in one phenomenally moving experience. Martha Wainwright delivered an over-dramatic version of “Que Sera Sera” but it was so heartfelt that we all bought into every uplifting word of it.
Dean Bowman brought a bafflingly broad vocal range to sing lines that were all over the scale in a jubilant “Sing a Simple Song.”
And then came the finale.
After sitting for nearly 90 minutes, the crowd finally broke free from the chains of their chairs on “Dance to the Music.” Leaping to their feet, people sang and bounced around to the modern-day Ode to Joy. Those of us who had already been dancing took this as our cue to begin the epic full-body freakout—well, at least I did. I’m not really sure what the people around me were doing because I was in a total trance. My movements were no longer voluntary. The music of Sly Stone was commanding my central nervous system, and his lyrics of unrepentant bliss had permeated even the darkest corners of my soul. When “I Want To Take You Higher” and “Music Lover” had been weaved in, we all responded by shouting “HIGHER!” Each one was challenging Bernstein to take us to loftier heights, and he and his compatriots had just enough rocket fuel to blow that old fort to shreds.
It was a simply stunning ending to a mindblowing concert. I was covered in sweat and pulsating with adrenaline. I needed more, so I quickly convinced my business manager to hop in a cab with me in a mad dash to climb nearly 100 blocks north to Lincoln Center for the last hour of the Ponderosa Stomp. We were overflowing with energy, so we engaged our poor cabbie in a bout of rapid-fire conversation and questioning that probably bordered on interrogation. He was initially scared of us, but by the end of the ride, he was talking and opening up in a way that he probably hasn’t in many years. We did our best to convince him to stop being a hermit, give up his addiction to Off-Track Betting, and get out to go see live music.
Unfortunately, what we saw of the Ponderosa Stomp was a bit of a letdown. We were far too wired to appreciate William Bell’s ballad-heavy set, including “You Don’t You Miss Your Water.” It didn’t help that I kept thinking William Bell was Archie Bell, expecting a “Tighten Up” that never arrived. While the show ended on a high note with The Bobbettes’ “I Shot Mr. Lee,” it really just paled in comparison to what we had experienced at Castle Clinton. The disappointment was inevitable because once you’ve been to the mountaintop, there’s nowhere to go but down.
It may seem ridiculous, but I cannot throw enough ebullient praise in the direction of Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra. Their show had a little something to please everyone from the jazz snobs to the fist-pumping lovers of shredding guitars to the indie rock whores to the klezmer-addicted Hassidim to the funk-worshipping lapsed Jews. Over a day later, I remain convinced that those in attendance witnessed the show of the year. As a matter of fact, I will publicly challenge anyone who attended that show to prove me wrong. I am adamant about the unprecedented level of inspired wizardry that took place on that stage, and if you want to debate me on this, go for it. I’ll just warn you now that you had better have your shit together because if you haven’t noticed, I feel kinda strongly about this subject, and I will come prepared with full color charts and graphs in tow.
You had better accept it or you betta bring it!