The First Ladies Of Disco At BB Kings, Wednesday, June 19th, 2017, Reviewed
And then there was disco: the 70s antidote to male dominated, misogynist, racist rock and roll, and a sound that would meld with Chicago House to become EDM –the biggest sound of pop not called hip hop in 2017 -maybe the biggest because so much hip hop includes EDM. In 2017, the First Ladies Of Disco brought their show, as programmatic and as manufactured as the original disco. Originally, disco was a producer Svengali form with movable parts but Wednesday night at BB Kings, it was James Arena, author of Stars Of 21st Century Dance Pop And EDM and Stars Of 90s dance Pop, as well of 2013’s The First Ladies Of Disco, the blueprint for the show, vision of disco as it never was. Arena’s wonderful concept was to introduce three major players in the ranks of disco, put a just fine dance band behind them, and take a 90 minute spin of 70s, early 80s disco. Three twenty minute sets, a song by the backing band, and a 20 finale with all three first ladies, added up to a wonderful excursion into disco past. Poorly advertised (I nearly missed it, assuming the show was a cover band), it still managed to fill BB King’s nicely.
An hour of disco DJing was a real pleasure, watching 60 and 70 year old, mostly black, audience members, perform synchronized dances like they just got off on Soul Train was a real joy. Disco, like House, is about hedonism, it is about the sheer joy of being alive and that’s all about it. Always a DJ art form before a live band art form, it was born to make the world one large Paradise Garage and even all those years later, it is a letting loose that jumps through a time loop. You can see the rust lift from these dancers, you can see the years gone. The thing about disco was its inclusiveness but in the 1970s it didn’t include older people, it was all 21 – 34 year olds letting loose, whether white or black, straight or gay, but never young or old. It is so inclusive, and dance is such a muscle memory, that it returns to the participants with seeming ease, 60 and 70 year olds may no longer look the part but they sure play the part.
The three first ladies of disco could, given the right promotion, each fill BB Kings alone. Back in 2013, there were four ladies of disco but Claudja Barry and Pamala Stanley of Hi-NRG were replaced by Evelyn “Champagne” King, a better, younger, kid sister match for the Weather Girl’s Martha Wash and singer actress Linda Clifford who took her “Sweet Charity” experience and took a left turn into disco. Clifford is 69 years old and Walsh 63, ECK is a spritely 57 years of age. ECK opened the evening with a show stopping “Love Comes Down” –one of the evening highlights. The band were pretty good, a synth did most of the heavy lifting, and you’d expect the drums to be a bit more upfront (King let’s lose on the tom toms at one point) the back-up singers were fine, the bassist I expected more of, and in 2017 the beats don’t sound big enough, but the singing is better than I remember it. The sets are short, and at the end of King’s set she takes us back to the song she was singing when she was discovered, a cleaning lady vacuuming a carpet, with an acapella “Change Is Gonna Come”. It was my favorite performance of the evening. Linda Clifford, the elder statesman for the evening, was a little over the top, and I get it, I am happy someone camped it up, though only a full on “If They Could See Me Now” warranted all her energy. Marsha Wash was the best songer of the night so her decision not to perform her humongous “It’s Raining Men,” the obvious end of the evening, in order to share the First Ladies Of Disco barely disco “Show Some Love” made no sense to me. Still you tend to forgive a great deal when Wash rips the lungs out of Black Box’s “Strike It Up” and C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” –she sang em first and now she is singing em last and she really does a number on them. Some of her touchy feely stuff in the middle maybe less so, but the performance isn’t derailed at all. The evening concludes with the three ladies covering Donna Summer’s’ “Bad Girls” and much better, the penultimate number, Sylvester, who Wash calls her mentor (for good reason, she was his backup singer as half of Two Tons Of Fun) ”You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. It was one of at least three songs that took the ladies and the bands to the place we had come to go, just a superbly shared moment, with Wash taking the lead and Linda and Evelyn singing back up, to an exploding audience time travelling with them.
Disco was such a producer’s art form that not only did it go seriously mainstream with everybody from Barbra Streisand to Rod Stewart dealing themselves a hand at the table, the actual stars as such, say, Donna Summer, could be seen as moving parts for the greater picture. The coolness towards the singer can be seen in Niles Rodgers refusing to rehire his superb backup singers for the Chic reunion: no excuse, just complete coldness. It was a tough gig, a singer like Wash can now take central stage while she was like a ten feet of stardom seen from another direction: she needed to be ethereal and larger than life simultaneously. Listening to Wash today, I’ve never heard a soprano like her: her voice cuts through and reverberates against everything surrounding it, she is a powerhouse and no wonder Sylvester loved her. Watching the three women last night was a real honor and a real remembrance of that disco spirit of hedonism, of the pursuit of happiness despite it all.