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Chuck Brown and E.U.

9:30 Club, February 1, 2003

Trying to explain go-go music, D.C.'s indigenous funk, to people ignorant of its glories is like trying to explain what Thai food tastes like to people who've eaten hamburgers all their lives, but here goes: Go-go concerts mix originals and free covers of hip-hop and R&B tunes, unified by a talker (or two), a band, and a beat. The talker sings what lyrics need to be sung and, just as important, works the crowd up into a call-and-response frenzy. The band ordinarily features a keyboardist, a guitarist or two, some other melody instrument, a drum kit, a conga set and a cowbell. These last three lay down the go-go beat, one of civilization's true glories in your author's opinion, a strict in-the-pocket with gently syncopating polyrhythms from the interplay of drum kit and conga. The double-time go-go beat is an impressive rhythmic propellent, but even at a more laid-back tempo the rhythms come out clearly etched and satisfyingly loud, urging you to sway and surrender.

You can hear these features in the two go-go songs that have made inroads outside of D.C.: DJ Kool's "Let Me Clear My Throat," with a hopped-up tempo but retaining the call-and-response ("Are y'all tired yet?" "Hell naw!") and hints of the original beat, and "Da Butt," a wondrous rump shaker that came from Sugar Bear and E.U., who opened for Chuck Brown at a show I saw yesterday at the 9:30 Club. E.U. saved "Da Butt" for last, and it was as cathartic and magesterial as I expected it to be, but E.U. had been making some questionable amplification decisions throughout their set and had thus shot out the hearing in my right ear almost entirely. It was not a happy thing. This wasn't loud; this was amplifier-burstingly loud, feedback-inducingly loud, obviously inappropriately loud.

It had not been always been thus. A set-opening cover of "I Want You Back" with the go-go beat made the Jackson 5 classic both tougher and more graceful than the original, and the "E.U. Freeze" had come across fine, with E.U.'s rock-solid beats and the call-and-response of Sugar Bear and company pitching up the energy. Juju, their intrepid drummer, had gone shirtless, which drew favorable reviews from the female members of my concertgoing contingent and made his duel with the conga player all the more exhilirating for its combination of sheer physicality and flamboyantly inventive musicality. And there would have been nothing wrong if E.U. had finally done "Da Butt" all night long, as the band generously allotted much of the hook-singing to the crowd, which was only too happy to take the opportunity.

Still, I was happy for the chance of a break for my ears before Chuck Brown took the stage. Chuck Brown's honorific is "The Godfather of Go-Go," and one can indeed trace all of go-go's development from his invention of the form. (This is why E.U. introduced themselves by saying "Y'all ready to see Chuck Brown?") Nevertheless, Brown's sound has remained rooted in jazz and funk, while E.U. and other bands like Rare Essence and Junkyard Band have stripped some of the melody to make a rawer dance sound. Not that Brown has been ignorant of recent musical developments; much of his set was given over to inventive covers of recent hip-hop and R&B songs. It's just that he likes to have a brass section and he likes to give it something fun to do, and he knows that the best volume is the one that allows you to hear everything that's going on.

Even more than that, while more modern go-go can become fierce, Brown cultivates a relaxed, genial vibe, as evidenced by his traditional greeting to the crowd's fervent chants of "Wind me up, Chuck!": "Say it again, y'all/I love you so much/Thank you so much for coming out tonight," etc. He then graciously ceded the stage to his lovely keyboardist, who came out and sang herself a bit, before launching into "Your Game." This generosity did not falter; a little later, after Chuck did a loose-limbed version of the Doug E. Fresh/Slick Rick epochal classic "La Di Da Di," a petite, plump, bespectacled female MC with dreads dyed a shocking red (and whose name, I am sad to say, I did not catch) came out and rhymed for cover versions of both "Lose Yourself" and "Work It." She resembled Missy Elliott a lot more than she did Eminem, but as the brass punctuated the rising chords of "Lose Yourself" with strategic accents and the beat wound itself up tighter and tighter, you could feel yourself lost in a beautiful world where nothing mattered except this beat and these rhymes.

Chuck also favored us with "Bustin' Loose," which back in 1979 climbed the R&B charts without apparently giving go-go itself much of a presence in our nation's minds (except that of Nelly, who borrowed its hook in "Hot In Herre"). It is now thought to be the first go-go song, and it was good to hear Chuck bustin' it live, even if the horn section was not as tight as it should have been on the break, y'all. The highlight of the evening, though, was a cover of B2K's "Bump Bump Bump." This song's hook, "Baby turn around and let me see that sexy body go bump bump bump," makes a hellacious go-go hook, and it was impossible not to respond to the beat as it ground out the chords for those last three words.

I still find it strange that go-go has not made more inroads in foreign cities, but perhaps that is for the best. If go-go went nationwide, after all, New Yorkers would have to be even more willfully ignorant to write about how sterile Washington's culture is. Eminem might actually rap over a go-go beat, which would be more cognitive dissonance for all of us. And D.C., Maryland and Virginia wouldn't have the greats of go-go around as much, which, as yesterday's concert proved, would be a damn shame.




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