The adage "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" couldn't have been more apt for Chicago ex-pat Philip Toscano, who dropped quietly into town to play a one-off gig with his much-loved band, The Bribes.
As an outfit who have defied easy categorization, mixing blues, rock and jazz into a creamy mix, The Bribes' show at The Hideout Inn on Jan. 13 came as something of a shock. I've written a great deal about Toscano's fleet guitar playing, but this timewith an unexpected shift in the dynamic of the groupit was clear that Chicago missed more than a great musician when Toscano booked to San Francisco over a year ago.
For starters, there was the absence of bassist Bryan Purcell, whoalong with drummer Joe Blickenov and, to a lesser extent, keyboard player Glad Mattcreated a subtle framework surrounding Toscano's stinging licks. On first seeing them, the three of them looked like Toscano's backup band but that was clearly misleading after hearing their recorded output. Purcell, Blickenov and Matt had a precise, low-key cohesion that gave the group a studied chemistry and a haunting gentleness. Here in Purcell's place was Seth Adams, whose playing, along with Blickenov, gave The Bribes a rack of muscles that, although not better or worse than the original version, gave them a blunt edge. Better still was hearing Toscano's vocals after all this time and I realized how much I missed his silken croon and gentle growl.
What the packed Hideout crowd got was a virtual buffet of surprises. Original member Andy Flores popped in for a stroll through the Kinks' chestnut "Sunny Afternoon," which set this punchier version of the band on a new track. "Old Man Trouble," "You in Mind" and "Goodnight to the Cry Baby" had a raw smack that made them jump. Matt's key work wafted though the set like a gentle breeze, but Blickenov and Adams clearly enjoyed injecting some unexpected punch into the set. The kicker of the night came with a fiery "Garbage In, Garbage Out" which clearly delighted the SOS crowd and gave Toscano an excuse to let loose. In an hilarious turn of events this furious hard blues song was cut off by the arrival of hordes of smooching couples as The Hideout's Chances Dances hootenanny kicked in. It couldn't be called an appropriate finish but it was just as memorable as everything that came before.
On a far less restrained note, George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic took over Thalia Hall on Jan. 31 to kick off "The Mardi Gras Madness Tour." Although Clinton seems to drop into town every year like the anti-Santa Claus, the excitement of this sold-out show was the impending release of Parliament's first album in close to 40 years. In typical fashion, though, Clinton ( who is now 76 ) didn't fiddle with his proven formula and largely repeated most of last year's show without sampling much of the new Medicaid Fraud Dog ( which is in the mixing stage and purportedly features Sly Stone, Pee Wee Ellis and Junie Morrison ). To be honest, none of that mattered much when you realize that under the shadow of the presidential election two years ago, P-Funk shows have seamlessly morphed into explosive primal celebrations.
Hearing the slew of hits piled up high and served with extra juice at Thalia Hall ( yes, this venue for this particular show was a stroke of genius ) with all the carnival madness, joy and hilarity of a kindergarten class on power drinks is pretty much like a big beaming blast of summer sunshine to dispel the dog day winter blahs. At this point you couldn't complain about hearing a streaming mix of the same old classics ( "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker," "Cholly ( Funk Getting Ready to Roll )," "One Nation Under A Groove," "Not Just Knee Deep," "Flashlight," "Uncle Jam," "Atomic Dog" ) or the lack of new jams ( only "I'm Gonna Make You Sick O Me" from the new album got a late set airing ) or that Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk made his customary appearance and boogied while he did handstands or that Clinton and his army of singers got goofy with some unexpected choreography.
What was really intoxicating is how Clintonas bandleader, producer, clown, singer and, in this case, carnival barkerhas taken musical idioms ( avant-garde jazz by way of Sun Ra, hard rock by way of Jimi Hendrix, overt African musical influences, '50s sci-fi movie themes and even nursery rhymes ), morphed them into a tribal hodgepodge, refitting them as funk that is clearly intended to be lived rather than listened to. Sure, P-Funk begs for scientific study while kidding itself and the listener silly, but who else on the planet has made a 50-year career out of creating such delirious joy? As Clinton told us in the 1970s, "Free your ass and your mind will follow."