The Coventry neighborhood of Cleveland Heights has been a throwback to earlier generations since the 1960s, when it was that generation. Cleveland’s counter-culture grows up here. Times and storefronts have changed, but the vibe remains the same.
Tonight we’re going back to around 1972. An artist in glasses and a short-sleeve plaid button-down shirt is selling prints of an alternative-art concert poster he’s made for tonight’s headliner, the stylish soul artist Curtis Harding. Cleveland’s own Mourning [A] Blkstar are the openers, and they’re selling cassette tapes of their music for just $5. Two older gentlemen of both primary skin colours and both in suit coats, are sitting together at the one actual lounge area in the Grog Shop, just inside the door.
Mourning [A] Blkstar is the perfect selection to open for Harding; their music can invoke images of life from forty years ago to over a hundred years into the past, but it is soundtracked to the synthesized background noise of the future. Keyboardist and band leader R.A. Washington has assembled a star group of singers, drummers and horns whose music sense is just as spiritual as it is technically brilliant. Each drummer, Dante Foley and Pete Saudek, is equipped with a simple bass/snare/hi-hat 3-piece set like what jazz and big bands of the 1920s played on. Yes, you hear jazz in their music.
Singer LaToya Kent uses her voice as an instrument (think Floyd’s “Great Gig In The Sky”), sung most often over the minimalist grind of Washington’s keyboard. Yes, you hear Pink Floyd in their music. The call/response structure of many of Mourning [A] Blkstar’s songs (listen to “If I Had To Lose” from the Blk Muzak album released last year), and the stark but passionate vocals show a distinct gospel influence. So yes, you hear gospel in this music.
And of course black gospel music is rooted in the Negro spirituals of early-American times, and if you’re familiar with the sound of those spirituals and you can strip your brain clear of the extra layers of music and lo-fi buzz, you can hear that, too. It’s both haunting and rich, both calming and unsettling.
The Grog Shop is a friendly place; while I was out trying to get the perfect photo of Mourning [A] Blkstar onstage, I had left pen and my notebook open on a bar stand and a concert-goer wrote “KISS RULES” on my open page underneath the notes I’d started on the show. I happen to be not much of a KISS fan, so I wrote “Rolling Stones” over it, drew the tongue and walked away purposely leaving my book hoping they’d come back.
Curtis Harding takes the stage with his groovy-looking band and we’re back up all the way to the ‘70s. He’s wearing a pale denim coat, Elton-John style sunglasses in an ultra-glittering orange, and some super-fly dress shoes. This is quickly getting the feeling of what I would expect a Curtis Mayfield show to feel like, circa 1973. Harding’s music feels a bit less psychedelic and his lyrics are more internal than Mayfield’s. This is where an Al Green comparison fits; Harding’s song “Ghost Of You” feels like an opposing lyrical take but with same musical vibe as Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” – also hear his newest single, “It’s Not Over”, you’ll hear Green there, too. His signature vocal sound is a soulful falsetto that feels exactly like that of a less-nasal Al Green.
Harding grew up primarily in the South – his mother was a gospel singer and his first musical inspiration. The family settled in Atlanta, where Harding met CeeLo Green and began establishing his musical career. He would eventually relocate to Canada and then back to Atlanta where he would become a member of the garage-rock band, Black Lips before starting a solo career in 2014.
Harding’s newest album, Face Your Fear, lists Danger Mouse as a producer and reflects the work ethic he presents in the music and on stage Harding learned from his earlier years in the music business. Though his faster songs are real bangers (“Need Your Love”, “On and On”), it’s the slower, melodic tracks that show off just how well-produced the album is and how in tune Harding is with his chosen craft. The eerie “Go As You Are” echoes in all the right places and the lyrics about the journey of life and love can only come from someone who’s been there.
Harding is a veteran performer and knows to keep the vibes flowing playing a set that sees him alternate often between styles, speeds and guitars. Harding’s band is as genuinely old-soul as he is, down to the white-boy-with-a-fro drummer, and they provide a robust background to Harding’s lead.
The show finishes naturally with “Need Your Love”, Curtis Harding’s biggest hit to date, a feel-good romp that makes for a perfectly positive send-off for a fun crowd. As the show ends, some of the cool kids, many of whom express they don’t have to be at work in the morning, decide to stick around and enjoy a few more drinks. Laughter and celebration from that bunch follow me out the door.
I sit down on the concrete steps outside the Grog Shop to take a few more notes and bury my head into my book.
“Hi, I’m the one who wrote ‘KISS RULES’ into your book.”
I look up and an adorable young woman with short black hair and a boho dress is standing in front of me. She immediately starts to apologize.
“No, that was really cool!”, I tell her. “I wrote you a message back but I’m not sure if you made it back over there to see.” I showed her the Rolling Stones comment, we had a good laugh, and now I plan to leave my notebook out and unattended every chance I can. Such is the vibe at the Grog Shop in the 1972 world we slid back to.