As far as rock/pop/funk goes, I still listen to War more than any other band except maybe Patti Smith, Enanitos Verdes or Shakira at this point. They are constantly in my cd player at home or at work. There is a two-disc compilation that has 34 of their songs on it and I usually skip only 3 of them at the most. I think the fact that they were passed over for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year is a joke. War was an incredibly talented and influential group.
Now there are two versions of the band: one is called War, led by keyboardist Lonnie Jordan, who tours around with the name and a bunch of other guys who never played on a single record. A couple of years ago I spent an hour and a half travelling to some stupid county fair to see them and it was one of the most disappointing and lame gigs I have ever attended. Completely disheartening. The other version, called the Low Rider Band, has four original members in it: Lee Oskar on harmonica, Harold Brown on drums, B.B. Dickerson on bass and Howard Scott on guitar. There are also three others guys on sax, keyboards and percussion. This band is doing a three night stand at Yoshi's this weekend. This band is War. I wish I could say they were still great, but at least last night they weren't even close.
I went to the 10 pm show, and as the crowd from the first show came out, everyone was smiling and saying how great it was. A significant percentage were getting back in line for the later show, work the next morning be damned. As one would expect at a War gig, the crowd was diverse beyond description. Let's just say pretty much almost everyone was represented. I was pretty excited- it was going to be good- they wouldn't suck. Maybe they could still jam? Maybe this audience filing out wasn't full of those ignorant boobs who'll love anything that makes them feel like they did back in the day and the show's gonna be great as long as they hear their favorite song right? Damn.
So the band comes out and heaves up a sloppy-ass "Cisco Kid" and Scott is immediately trying to get the audience to sing the ooh ooh ooh ooh ooooo ooooo oooooh part pretty much right off the bat. Bad sign. Very bad sign. His voice is totally shot, the band has no tightness to it at all and I'm thinking to myself "fuck- they suck!" Then I calm down and think it's just the first song, let them warm up, rationalizing to myself that the first set didn't just do that. Next up comes "Slippin' into Darkness" and it too, is another mess, one of the all-time best songs about paranoia played without any tension at all. Okay, so sometimes it takes the P-Funk All-Stars an hour plus to get warmed up. Let's see what happens.
"Get Down" finally hits a decent groove, aided by the fun and funky chorus, and now the band is pumping it out for the first time. It's also apparent to me that part of the problem is that Scott can no longer play the guitar at all- he can really only do rhythm- his fingers are too slow on the leads, and the prior two songs required lead parts and "Get Down" doesn't. Maybe he has arthritis like Keith Richards. Rolling Stones shows now either live or die on whether or not Keith can actually play that night so maybe the same thing is true with War.
"Sun oh Son"- a track off the first album that was never a hit, is great. The band revels in not having to play one of the favorites and it shows- they cut loose and the funk is now hitting the stage. Next up comes a new song (!!!!), "Ordinary Man," and Dickerson sings the lead. It's a really good tune actually in the same mold as "All Day Music" except the lyrics are on the bitter side. This song, however, elicits what looks like real interest from the band for the first time tonight.
Then it hits me. These guys are "Ordinary Men." Some woman seated front and center is trying to get Scott to have a sip of her wine. He at first begs off, saying "No thanks, I can't do that anymore." She's insistent. She doesn't get it at all. Damn lady, the man can no longer drink booze. He almost loses his cool, then asks for an O'Douls. A guy brings out a bottle of Becks and sets it down in front of his monitor.
Scott looks at him like "What the fuck is wrong with you?"
The guy mouths "non-alcoholic."
Scott lifts the bottle, clinks the woman's wine glass and gets on with the song.
Yeah. Ordinary guys who lost a lawsuit to protect the only asset they probably had, living off royalties from samples and "Low Rider"s inevitable appearance in a movie every couple of years. They probably don't even practice regularly and that's why the groove is gone.
Sad? A little. Glory days long gone.
But I'm interested now in a different way and my focus shifts to what's lacking in the music and I notice what it is that really bugs me about the way they sound. War was great because they knew how to hold it back just enough on the beat. Doing so creates a tension- you anticipate the beat, where the bass is going to go, and the best funk makes you wait ever so slightly for it so that you can slide into it just behind the beat. Listen to James Brown's "Doing it to Death" for the ultimate example- especially when the key changes to G (which James lets you know in advance is going to happen so don't worry about figuring it out). These guys just don't have it tonight. Except for Lee Oskar- who can still play a harmonica better than anyone else on the planet. He's still fantastic.
The next two songs are "Low Rider" and "Why Can't We Be Friends," their biggest commercial hits and the only two songs I would have rather not heard. Again, they suck and of course they do- if I were these guys I would hate playing these two songs over and over and over again. But of course there is some asshole in the crowd yelling "Low Rider!" Maybe they should have called the band something else- like "Gypsy Men." Even the dude playing the cowbell if freaking off the beat.
The last song is "Me and Baby Brother" and this is the biggest disappointment for me. This song has a monster funk beat that comes down in eight nasty notes ending in a huge THWOMP! before repeating- and there's no THWOMP! at all- it's just played in a continuous rhythm. Sigh. Show's over. 8 songs, an hour and 20 minutes. I rate it a C+.
But I'll be back on Saturday just to see if it was an off night. Becuase it is, after all, War. Three fingers and a smile.