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Saturday, 01 October 2011 16:02

Concert review: Fans of Stevie Wonder, KDHX and local talent converge at Off Broadway for an action-packed night, Friday, September 30

Kim Massie Kim Massie Kate McDaniel
Written by Francisco Fisher
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Smiles were the only permanent fixtures onstage as dozens of musicians paid homage to one of the most beloved songwriters of all time during Higher Ground: A Tribute to Stevie Wonder and Benefit for 88.1 KDHX.

The evening had the feel of a well-oiled jam session featuring top players in the St. Louis local scene, and it was kept rolling along thanks to emcee Dr. Jeff Hallazgo, host of KDHX's the Big Bang!

With 11 acts, there was little downtime between sets, yet both stage and sound were managed smoothly, as was bar traffic inside of the accommodating Off Broadway located in the Cherokee-Lemp district.

The Rhythm Section Road Show was first to leave the gate. The band's two permanent members, Andy Coco of KDHX's the Rhythm Section and organist Nathan Hershey, led the charge along with a full sound complete with horns. Hershey, recognized by a Gatsby cap and the funky, mind-altering solos he brings to bands such as Dogtown Allstars, was the first singer of the night and delivered "Living For the City" with an easy confidence.

After the Road Show's three-song set, Lamar Harris entered the stage in a dapper button-down he called his "'70s jacket," and held a melodica up to the microphone. After playing an instrumental, with some fancy finger work, he picked up his more familiar trombone and backed "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day" with a crisp sound.

Roland Johnson then brought his rich, crooning voice to the table. "Let's see if we can find Cherie," he said before launching into "My Cherie Amour," followed by two more love songs, "Isn't She Lovely" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." Johnson got into character for his third song by slipping on a pair of dark sunglasses.

Jesse Gannon Truth followed as Gannon sang while playing keys and covered the funky "Too High" with a jazzy flair complete with solos and scatting. Many of the audience members likely had a favorite song they wanted to hear, and this reviewer was waiting for "Maybe Your Baby," which Truth played with a heavy, sauntering bass line.

The Ransom Note was perhaps the most unique and entertaining act to take on Wonder's work. Vocalist Merv Schrock contributed an outrageous stage presence complete with air humping and devil horns. In contrast, the tight harmonies and jazzy instrumentation the band used were cool and composed, bringing Steely Dan to mind at times during versions that included the Latin-influenced "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing."

There was a collective jaw-dropping in the crowd during the pitch-perfect rendition of "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away" delivered powerfully by C. Jay Conrod. The pace of the night slowed down during Conrod's set, but in no way was it cooled off by the singer's massive, unwavering voice.

The audience started to boil once Kenny DeShields took the stage along with a fantastic backing band to perform "Higher Ground," during which people couldn't help but jump and sing along. DeShields told them to "make some noise for Stevie," before performing "These Three Words."

Theresa Payne was unmistakable with '70s-era big hair, as well as a classic voice that commanded attention during renditions of "Ribbon in the Sky" and the guaranteed sing-along, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." Two backup singers joined players already onstage from the DeShields set, forming an epic ensemble.

Fresh Heir blew what was left of the roof off with a flawless, high-energy version of "Sir Duke" that featured Nick Savage on drums and vocals. Trumpet player Desmond Alexander noted that Stevie Wonder isn't easy to play, but he's fun. Fresh Heir switched to a mellower party vibe with "Master Blaster (Jammin')" to finish their adrenaline-inducing set.

Teddy Presberg Organ Trio took the crowd to another level with their instrumental versions of "Tuesday's Heartbreak" and "Love Having You Around." In these re-workings, the Trio in a way follows a Stevie Wonder recipe while using interesting new ingredients. It was fantastic to watch, and impressive to know that the group warmed up by performing with Garage A Trois at 2720 Cherokee earlier that evening.

The pinnacle of the event came at its end when special guest, Kim Massie, took the stage. She brought with her an iPad with music notes, but the first song she performed, "Superstition," was already well a part of her repertoire at her regular gigs at blues clubs like Beale on Broadway. After covering "Make Sure You're Sure," Massie invited two backup singers onstage. "Having backup singers is a luxury I don't often get," she said before embarking on an indeed luxurious and breathtaking rendition of "As."

True to form, Massie scatted along with "wahs" of the guitar and conducted the band with a flick of the wrist to play soft so that everyone could hear her vocal accompaniment during the chorus. "I want you to hear the words," she told the crowd during "As," and the backup singers rose to the occasion with the lyrics "Until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky, always."

The music of Stevie Wonder is timeless and celebrated across musical genres, and there was no better proof than during this KDHX benefit. Along with supporting the radio station, the event allowed for many music lovers to sample top-notch St. Louis acts and see for themselves how successful community radio is in keeping the local music scene alive and kicking.

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