Saturday Night: Kashmere Stage Band at Fitzgerald's

The Legendary Kashmere Stage Band Fitzgerald's July 21, 2012

Craig Baldwin, the passionately loud and boisterous band director of the Kashmere Stage Band, broke his ankle recently and was forced to perform in a boot and with a cane Saturday night at Fitzgerald's in the Heights. Music, however, is a magical thing, and its healing powers were funneled full force through him on that night.

Baldwin danced and sang and got down on it to the beat of the legendary Thunder Soul. Hobbled as he was, he and the band put together one of the funkiest, loudest, and most soulful shows Houston has experienced in a very, very long time.

As I walked into the venue, I caught the tail end of Lower Life Form's set. The mood was very much "New Orleans Jam," and the mix of brass band and hip-hop created a lively atmosphere for the appreciative crowd. At one point, they dropped the jubilant piece "Run Go Get It", with the rapper rapping at warp speed and the MC and friends running in place to the beat.

Highly enjoyable, infectiously moving, and downright fun performance by the LLF crew. I hope to catch a full set from them sometime soon.

Soon after, a whirlwind swept across the stage, a cacophony of chairs and horns and music stands coming together to accommodate the main event. The director silenced the chaos, then initiated a funky rhythm section groove that warmed up the band and the crowd.

The guitar dropped in, then the bass, and finally the horns. Layers of shimmering sounds whistled through the air of the cavernous venue, traveling from ear drums to the soul, causing the bobbing of heads, raising and dropping of shoulders, and swiveling of hips all around.

The Kashmere Stage Band continues the legacy of a certain Mr. Conrad "Prof" Johnson, who began the ensemble as band director at Kashmere High School in the late 1960s, and whose success was documented in the 2011 film Thunder Soul. If you have not yet seen the film, stop everything and do that now. We will wait...

* * * * * *

...Very well then. As you can see, the tradition and honor of Prof Conrad is not easy to live up to, nor is it something to take lightly. But his band continues to overcome those obstacles.

The horns were fierce, strong, and in charge, the solos were crisp, and the structure was formidable and fluid. A sound like this can only be attained through countless hours of practice and an equal amount of love and respect for the music being produced. Whether jazz, or blues, or funk, KSB is the ultimate embodiment of Prof Conrad's musical legacy.

Alternating between original compositions such as "Scorpio," "Kashmere," and "Thunder Soul," the band also offered their versions of soul and funk favorites such as "Love And Happiness" by Al Green, Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft", and "Superbad," "This Is a Man's World", and "I Feel Good" by James Brown. I'd venture to guess that if the Reverend and the Funk Doctor were in attendance that night, they would be nodding and dancing in approval of KSB's treatment of their classics.

But playing the music is one thing. Coordinated dancing and swaying as you play is altogether more difficult and more fun to watch. The saxophones leaned, the trumpets swung back and forth, and the trombones extended their slides in synchronized succession, adding a visual stimulation that complemented the precision noise extraordinarily well.

Even the congas, tambourine, and cowbell were played with the utmost dedication, one that has the fans orgasmic with joy. This is a show band, and a show band not only plays the music, it lives it.

Baldwin proceeded to split the room in two, dubbing one side "The Gap Band," and the other half "Fifth Ward." The funky beat was laid out and then he lead a call and response, with one side singing "Whoop, upside ya head, say whoops upside ya head" and the other side letting out a timely grunt and dance.

The entire audience was enthralled with Baldwin's antics, following his commands like eager students. We were all in the band then, if only for a little while.

I caught up with Mr. Baldwin after the show to congratulate him on the excellent performance. "If my ankle wasn't broken, we could have done a much better job!" he proclaimed.

I'm not sure how they could ever improve on a masterpiece, but dammit, I would love to see them try.

Personal Bias: In high school, I was in the stage band at Jesse H. Jones Sr. High School. I played alto sax and along with Nick Zamora of The Suffers, my awesome band director Mr. Ronald Cole, and a few other very talented musicians, we had a nice little run. Nothing close to the success of Kashmere, but it was fun nonetheless.

The Crowd: An eclectic mix of B-Boys, DJs, and older jazz/funk lovers.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Awwwww yeaaaa! Whoop upside ya head!"

Random Notebook Dump: Seriously one of the best and most enjoyable shows I've been to all year, maybe ever. Baldwin said they are preparing a trip to Australia early next year, and then they have their sights on China. We wish them the best of luck. You guys keep making Houston proud.


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