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What Is It Good For?

There are, to be fair, two kinds of nostalgia acts: those that suck really hard, and those that don't. The former category includes a slew of one-hit wonders and even once legitimate bands who've been rescued from obscurity and banished to musical hell by a phone call from some desperate, hustling agent with a bright idea for some quick cash. Think Traffic. Think Quiet Riot. Think long and hard on the Eagles, and see if that doesn't lead you to think about Crosby, Stills and Nash -- bands with every reason to exit stage left in the first place, and none at all to encore, except for the sad but sure bet that people may be relied upon to pay handsomely for the pleasure of hearing something they've heard before.

On the other side of the coin are a handful of bands that went away, for one reason or another, then came back, for one reason or another, and turned out -- despite a decade-plus hibernation, despite the shuffling off of original members and the addition of undistinguished new ones -- to have something legitimate to offer. You could put the new Led Zep -- 'scuse me, Page/Plant -- in that category if you were being generous, and getting closer to the point at hand, you'd have to count George Clinton's evergreen P-Funk tribe. You'd also have to count War, best known to classic rock meatheads as Eric Burdon's backing band on the indecipherably gnomic "Spill the Wine" and to gearheads for 1975's borderline novelty hit "Low Rider," but most satisfyingly appreciated for what they've always been: one mofo of a jamming funk band.

War started life in the late 1960s as first The Creators, then The Nightshift -- Southern California R&B cover bands built around the core of drummer Harold Brown, guitarist Howard Scott, keyboardist Lonnie Jordan and bassist B.B. Dickerson (all save Dickerson are members of the present touring lineup). They coalesced in L.A.'s Compton suburb, where the band that would become War absorbed a funky syncopation that's still with them. Producer/songwriter/now manager Jerry Goldstein had the bright idea of hooking The Nightshift up with ex-Animal belter Eric Burdon and Lee Oskar, a Danish harmonica player then crashing on Burdon's couch. Eric Burdon Declares War and the evocatively titled Black Man's Burdon were both released in 1970. The band toured forever, Burdon's flagging career caught a second wind, War got to play in front of a bunch of white kids for the first time, hit singles were logged, and the whole combination of bluesy vocals, funkified vamps, syncopated beats and white-boy mouth harp gelled swimmingly. It was, to drastically misquote Barbara Mandrell, multi-culti when multi-culti wasn't cool.

That, or it helped make multi-culti cool. Then Burdon bailed, leaving War to pump out a string of platinum albums over the course of ten years. The back catalog stands strong today. The World is a Ghetto, at least, is absolutely indispensable.

Then, of course, disco rendered genuinely soulful funk more or less obsolete, and War fell apart. It wasn't until 1992 that the phones started ringing again with agents and their bright ideas. Rap producers had gotten around to ripping off War samples, and a tribute album, Rap Declares War, brought new attention to the band. Original members Scott, Jordan and Brown assembled fresh horses Ronnie Hammon (drums, vocals), Rae Valentine (keyboards), Kerry Campbell and Charles Green (saxophones), Sal Rodriguez (percussion) and, just to prove they've got a sense of history about the whole multi-culti thing, a Japanese harmonica player named Tetsuya "Tex" Nakamura. The refurbished band recorded a new -- and, sorry to say, unnecessary -- CD called Peace Sign, and hit the road again.

When the reborn War played Rockefeller's last year, there was the historical loss of key members such as Oskar to overcome, plus the distressing fact that Jordan played the lion's share of his bass lines on a synthesizer. And now that Compton is identified more with N.W.A.'s bitch-bashing than with less malignant forms of brotherhood, the War credo of love thy neighbor and sunshine on the street corner borders on hopeless naivete in ways it couldn't have in the '70s. But none of that made a damn bit of difference when War stretched out into "The Cisco Kid" or "Slipping into Darkness." When they pegged those classic grooves, you couldn't hear patchwork personnel or dated nostalgia. All you could hear is a band that plays funk music with the best in the business. And when you're the best, you can come back as often as you like. -- Brad Tyer

War plays at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday, May 18 at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $25, $22.50 and $8. For info call 869-8427.

Charlie Byrd -- One bird has flown the coop but another has landed. Guitar virtuoso Tal Farlow has backed out of Cezanne's Guitar Masters Weekend, but in his place he's sending a worthy replacement, Charlie Byrd. Byrd, if you recall, enjoyed almost instant success with his Jazz Samba collaboration with Stan Getz in 1962, the session that introduced the bossa nova and Brazilian jazz to an American audience. Unfortunately, Byrd has had to live with that ''easy listening'' tag ever since. The fact is this guitarist can play anything he sets his mind to. He's studied classical music under Segovia, he's played with the Woody Herman Orchestra and he's mastered the lessons of the six-string pioneers before him, with a specific nod to Charlie Christian. As part of this showcase, Byrd will mix and match his edgy voice with two fellow guitarists, Gene Rodino (a Joe Pass protege) and Terry Holmes (noted for his excellent rhythm work). At Cezanne, 4100 Montrose, Friday, May 19 and Saturday, May 20. 529-1199. (TIm Carman)

 
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