by Brian Weidy
In honor of what would have been Curtis Mayfield’s 70th birthday, the Lincoln Center Festival put together an all-star cast of characters to bring his music back to the stage. At the bucolic Avery Fisher Hall, the crowd eagerly shuffled to their seats as the house lights came down and the 19-piece house band filed onto the stage.
“Right on for the Darkness” opened the evening, with Dr. Lonnie Smith colorfully adding B-3 fills on top of the massive band. As The Impressions graced the stage for “We’re a Winner,” “Keep on Pushing,” and “People Get Ready,” the audience felt as if they were watching a sermon, as Sam Cash broke the song down on a seemingly metaphysical level. Following “Choice of Color,” William Bell joined The Impressions on “Gypsy Woman.”
After their five songs, The Impressions left the stage, leaving William Bell to singlehandedly tackle “I'm So Proud.” Bell then cleared the stage for Mavis Staples, who sang with her distinctive rasp on “This is My Country” and “Let’s Do It Again.” In Staples's voice, one can hear exactly where Tina Turner's influences lie.
Aloe Blacc made contributions to a pair of songs: “The Makings of You” and “Back to the World,” which featured his fantastic falsetto, eerily reminiscent of Mayfield’s own ability to ascend to the upper registers. Meshell Ndegeocello arrived for the iconic song off Superfly, “Pusherman,” before being joined by Bilal for the theme to Superfly, “Freddie's Dead.” The string of contemporary artists continued with two members of TV on the Radio—Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe—performing “Kung Fu.” Sinead O’Connor then brought her distinctive timbre to “Jesus” and “Billy Jack."
Sinead and the house band then left the stage to clear space for a trio of members from The Legendary Roots Crew for “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” After opening the song with a lengthy drum intro from ?uestlove, the trio launched into arguably Mayfield’s darkest and most political song at the highest decibel level of the evening. The trio consisted of ?uestlove on drums, Captain Kirk Douglas on guitar and vocals, and Tuba Gooding Jr. on tuba. Douglas really let the fret-board fireworks fly on this one, channeling his inner Vernon Reid on uncharacteristically fast runs up and down the neck of the guitar, which elicited some of the loudest cheers of the night. The Roots temporarily shuffled off the stage, before everyone from the evening came back out for arguably Mayfield’s most famous song, “Move On Up”—capping off a night those lucky enough to attend will not soon forget.