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A Tribute to Michael Jackson with Diverse and Friends
Friday, April 15, 2011
Better than: Dusting off my old MJ vinyl and throwing it on the turntable (which is saying something -- that's one of my favorite pastimes).
The King of Pop was alive and well Friday night when local jazz whizzes Diverse and a host of their impossibly talented musician friends took to the RecordBar stage and resurrected Michael Jackson's greatest hits from his vast catalog. It's a tricky thing to do -- not just anyone can pull off Michael Jackson without sounding like glorified karaoke -- but Diverse, anchored by the vision and poise of Hermon Mehari and his trumpet, brought jazz swagger and impressive style to the MJ table, doing his catalog right and dressing it up with visionary horn solos and a vocal section worth drooling over.
To begin the night, the crew slowly built up to their first big MJ hit of the night, "Black or White," the first single off of Jackson's eighth studio album, Dangerous. The musicians kept their arrangement of this song light and true to the original, a cool and easy tribute to start the night off right. During the song's main guitar part (executed perfectly by Tim Braun of the Good Foot), I heard someone in the crowd launch into an explanation to their neighbor about the frequent misattribution of this particular riff to Guns & Roses guitarist Slash. I instantly knew this was going to be a good night. The place was full of true MJ enthusiasts.
Bad. It was a perfect choice for the second song of the night, a slow jammer that kept feet tapping and the growing crowd singing along. But the true inspiration of the night was still yet to come: Before the next song the group played, Hermon Mehari brought saxophone legend Bobby Watson to the stage, and as they launched into "The Way You Make Me Feel" (inconsequentially my personal favorite MJ song), Watson wailed on and worked over his sax with the ease of a pro and the feeling of a true musician. The song was made even more alive with the addition of the Good Foot's Julia Haile on the mic, proving that even the ladies could pay homage to the King of Pop -- and do it with style.
Next they tackled "Man in the Mirror," one of MJ's most acclaimed (and downloaded) hits, off of his seventh album,
The night continued to be incredible with the addition of Reach on the mic, dropping some MJ-inspired rhymes on top of Diverse's jazzy improvisational breakdowns, and the super-talented Reggie Simmons busting out some expertly executed MJ dance moves on the stage. Local social butterfly and all-around talented guy Al Burns also made an appearance with his dance grooves, though he remained on the dance floor, surrounded by a swarm of people so thick, I could only see the top of his head. I, however, have seen that man get up and get down to some MJ, so I am confident he was killing it.
They ended the first half with perhaps the most anticipated (and expected) MJ song of the night, "Thriller." I looked around and saw an uncountable number of people doing renditions of the "Thriller" dance (yeah, you know the one) while the entire host of musicians and singers chipped in to the full sound of the epic song. The intermission was perfectly timed and just the right length -- short enough for some fresh air and a cigarette but not long enough to make people leave. (And who would leave this incredible show anyway?) By the time the second half started, the door guy informed me that it had reached one-in/one-out capacity inside, showing yet again just how much Kansas City loves its tribute shows.
My favorite moment of the second half came when the group did "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough", but I may be biased -- Off the Wall is my favorite Michael Jackson album. The entire bar was dancing by now; I don't know how anyone could have kept at least their feet from tapping the entire night. I made my way to the back of the bar, to obtain another drink and to check the sound from the another angle. Though it seemed a little quiet for such a big show, I did make note that at this particular moment, they sounded just like the original MJ recording. I even (like a nerd) checked the sound on my iPhone's Shazam app, and it pulled the original song up right away. Maybe that's a bit cheesy, but I think it's impressive.
They ended the set with an impromptu reprise of "Rock With You" (which they had already done earlier in the second set). As Mehari told me later, they hadn't planned an encore song, but the crowd demanded it. So they launched into that song again, dragging it out with extra solos and fiery energy. It was a a night full of enthusiasm, of tradition, and one that certainly takes its place on the ever-growing shelf of local tribute shows that seem to be popping up everywhere these days. Diverse executed the night perfectly, selecting MJ hit after MJ hit, keeping the crowd dancing and singing along. But when those special moments with Watson wailing on sax or Haile blaring out some ballad vocals hit, it seemed as though all conversation halted and heads turned with rapt attention. It's a testament to how talented the musicians in this town are, and to just how solid and beloved the Michael Jackson catalog is and will likely remain.
Critic's Notebook: It was local drummer Ryan Johnson's birthday (he also works at RecordBar), and I may have taken one (or three) too many birthday shots with him. But that's OK -- he's got some sweet MJ moves of his own.
Overheard in the Crowd: "If anybody from Kansas City would have been on a Michael Jackson album, it would have been Bobby Watson."
Black or White
Man in the Mirror
The Way You Make Me Feel
I Can't Help It
They Don't Really Care About Us
Never Can Say Goodbye
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough
Rock With You
The Girl Is Mine
Remember the Time
You Are Not Alone
Encore: Rock With You