Jon Cleary and his Monster Gentleman rip it up at the Big Room
I took notes only about half the time at Jon Cleary‘s recent Big Room show, instead of doing my usual, night-long scribbling. The rest of the time I was out on the dance floor. So shoot me.
England-turned-New-Orleans funkmaster keyboardist-singer-songwriter Cleary and his Absolute Monster Gentlemen—the formidable Derwin “Big D” Perkins on guitar and background vocals, Cornell C. Williams on five-string candy-apple-red electric bass and vocals, and drummer Raymond Weber—made it tough for a person to stay seated.
The dance floor was filled pretty much from the get-go and stayed that way as Cleary—whose perhaps bigger claim to fame is as touring keyboardist (and songwriter) for legendary singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt—and his kick-ass crew churned out song after funky song, starting out with a fun cover of fellow New Orleans funk band The Meters’ song, “Just Kissed My Baby.”
Bassist Williams—dressed-down crisply in sleeveless black T-shirt, baggy black shorts and backwards white ball cap—established himself right off the bat as a virtuosic player who held down the New Orleans-style funk machine perfectly, powerfully and smoothly. Williams never showed off, but would stroll across the stage occasionally during the night to be near Perkins, and the two of them would tear it up, in unison, on a lengthy, complicated riff.
Perkins held down his end of the deal supremely as guitar-playing pillar of Cleary’s ensemble as he sat like a genial king on his high-backed stool with a satisfied smile on his face and churned out groove after groove. Perkins soloed at rare, select times, which made his spare, soulful, single-line solos that much more precious.
All night long, extended funk jams switched up with Professor-Longhair-influenced boogie-woogie, and top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top keyboard arpeggios. The band playfully teased the audience by changing up the beat on a dime, making for extra, booty-twistin’ excitement on the dance floor. Skillfully abrupt endings were also fun for the dancers to respond to.
“Going to New Orleans (Mardi Gras)” and a Caribbean-influenced version of the Professor Longhair classic “Tipitina” were two of the distinctly New-Orleans-vibe-invoking tunes the band got into. Cleary paid tribute to The Meters throughout his set with versions of their songs “People Say” and “Hey Pocky A-Way,” which like “Just Kissed My Baby” can be found on their definitive 1974 album, Rejuvenation.
He also made a musical nod to Taj Mahal, who has covered Cleary tunes, by performing a version of Taj’s “Cheatin’ on You.” “Too Damn Hot,” from Cleary’s self-titled 2002 album, was just exactly hot enough, and the band rocked out on Cleary’s “Unnecessarily Mercenary,” from his 1999 Moonburn album (and Raitt’s 2005 Souls Alike).
More than a word needs to be said about the three-part vocal harmonies of Cleary, Williams and Perkins. Williams and Perkins (and drummer Weber, who is as great a player as his three band mates) come from a background of regular gospel singing at church, and used to be part of a New Orleans gospel band called the Friendly Travelers. The harmonies they create with one another and collectively with Cleary are sweet, smooth and soaring, and delectably evoke a decidedly ‘70s sound.
“It was butt-shakin’ music,” confirmed Cleary fan and widely known local hand percussionist Jerry Morano (Spark ‘n’ Cinder, etc.), who was also on the dance floor much of the night. “He can do anything! And the band—they’re so sympathetic to each other.”