The Headhunters and Rebecca Barry

The Big Top

March 02, 2005

The Headhunters and saxophonist Rebecca Barry went straight from the recording studio to The Big Top Wednesday night. The Headhunters, who were acting as Barry's rhythm section for her next album, normally play larger venues like the House of Blues. So, it was a treat to see the legendary Fusion band inside an intimate box/stage. The group was bassist Paul Jackson, Jr., drummer Mike Clark, percussionist Bill Summers, and pianist Victor Atkins.

Former Miles Davis pianist Herbie Hancock formed The Headhunters in 1973 in an attempt at a more accessible Funk/Rock/Jazz sound. Their "Head Hunters" album became the best selling(out-selling "Bitches Brew") Jazz LP up to that point and spawned classics "Watermelon Man" and "Chameleon." When Hancock left The Headhunters at the end of the '70's, the band stopped playing. They reunited in 1998 and are still producing original material.

Barry played her new Pop/Funk songs with The Headhunters for the first set. They played vocal songs and instrumentals. Barry sang emotionally intense lyrics from a music stand, but her need for cheat sheets made her delivery stilted and minimized the force of her words. This is why the instrumentals were better than the sung songs. Barry wailed on the sax and the group had more room to improvise. Unfortunately, in a smaller venue, playing someone else's songs, and with the spotlight not squarely on them, The Headhunters were more relaxed than usual and not on their A game. The guys were most like sedated tigers during the vocal songs. During solos and short jams, they showed their high level of musicianship, but I was disappointed they couldn't roam freely and kill.

Though the room was abuzz with seeing The Headhunters close-up before the show, the room energy dissipated between sets. I'm surprised the band didn't play "Chameleon" or "Watermelon Man" during the first set to whet the crowd's appetite.

The songs were still enjoyable, and it was great fun to watch the brotherly interaction between The Headhunters. Jackson directed his infectious smile at Atkins as he went through complex but accessible bass lines with ease. Same with Clark. He played on someone else's kit, but during solos he still flew around it by the power of his wrists. Even when he overplayed, he held back. And there was the magnificent Summers. His syncopated conga and bell rhythms created a lovely tension that was resolved in a beautiful hold-your-breath built-it-up release.

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