PHOTOS FROM CAMEO, EL DEBARGE, AND MIDNITE STAR
Cameo: George Clinton set the standard for funk lords of yore when he traded his rooster wig for smart pinstripes and fedora and, as his history has always been written, Larry Blackmon has been a little late catching up. Summer Soul Series headliners Cameo looked at best like a poor man’s version of P-Funk, and despite stage costumes that included both Kanye’s old leather Givenchy kilt and a guitar shaped like a dragon, their set was mostly toothless. Blackmon performed with almost zero energy and during the stretches that he disappeared backstage, he was replaced with a pair of off-brand rappers calling themselves the Gecko Bros.
When the time came for “that song”, there was little drama and less surprise. Blackmon essentially announced it as such, and while it’s as irresistible an ‘80s guilty pleasure as there ever were, it’s not a great sign when you walk away thinking that Cameo’s set would have been a little better had they played the “Word Up!” chorus just once more.
El DeBarge: Under normal circumstances, it’s easy to forget just how many completely infectious hits on which El DeBarge lent his note-perfect falsetto. He came out and reminded his Greensboro audience, however, from the jump when he interpolated his vocals on “Stay With Me” with Notorious B.I.G’s rhymes from “One More Chance”, his Faith Evans collaboration “Lay With Me”, his mega-hit “Rhythm of the Night”, and of course, the oft-covered “”I like It”.
Supported only by drummer Rischard Jenkins and the back-up chorus who lived inside his Macbook, DeBarge’s set was a reminder that he could have and would have been a huge figure in pop music had his personal foibles not gotten in the way. He remains studied up on the classic charmers and the smoothest R&B lotharios, coalescing their best elements underneath his baby-smooth croon. When he focused on his music, it was wildly impressive, but his attention wandered a bit, stopping and starting without a real backup band to hide his mistakes. Even his drummer was wondering aloud on Instagram when he might pick up a real backing band. But with a voice like that, he can manage.
Midnight Star: There may not be a more festival-ready, but regularly overlooked bands still living on their ‘80s output than Midnight Star. Unlike Cameo, they’ve traded their fantastical ‘80s wardrobe (there’s an entire 1983 concert out there that is absolutely worth watching) for great suits that were surely punishing in the 80-degree heat. It was impossible to tell, because the front trio of Bo Watson, Belinda Lipscomb and Melvin Gentry were complete powerhouses.
It’s hard to pick a high point: “Midas Touch” was biggest sing-along in the crowd of 4,000 (which, somehow, has become entrenched as the most important song by an American band in British pop) and “No Parking On the Dance Floor” is a funk juggernaut, but “Freak-A-Zoid” and its crushing low end and Roland VP-330 commanding all the “freak-a-zoids, robots and androids” to please report to the dance floor is the blue-ribbon jam.