Justin Barney: From the music desk at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee I’m Justin Barney with Marcus Doucette and this is 5 Songs We Can’t Stop Listening To.
This remarkable combo from Cleveland only formed at the start of 2016, but they’ve grabbed my attention with a flurry of recordings since then. Led by producer RA Washington, Mourning [A] BLKstar features a trio of dynamic singers—James Longs, LaToya Kent, and Kyle Kidd—and an indeterminate number of musicians. The ensemble traffics in a gritty strain of DIY Afrofuturist soul music, balancing hip-hop production techniques with lo-fi experimentation that bathes sultry grooves in darkness, either in scratchy samples or washed-out synth tones.
In February the group released The Possible through its Bandcamp site. The album contains a series of murky but seductive ballads dominated by themes of distrust—one narrative after another details a desire for human connection despite having been burned. When in the roiling mid-tempo jam “Nova” Kidd recounts the betrayal he's experienced, his refrain, “So fuck you,” seems like the only logical expression of his feelings. More recently the group released BLK Muzak (Glue Moon), which reaches a new apotheosis in its vocal interplay, summoning the spirit of vintage Sly & the Family Stone and Curtis Mayfield while still bearing traces of Cleveland’s rich punk legacy. The result is that in Mourning [A] BLKstar’s best material, such as the harrowingly lean “Flicker,” there’s something both comforting and unsettling. v
BY GENNIFER HARDING-GOSNELL AUGUST 6, 2018
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.