The Hollywood Bowl’s world music series correctly sold Sunday’s show as a funk festival rather than attempting to shroud it in some sort of public-radio-friendly, PC designation that would soft-sell the bump-and-grind nature of this music. Maceo Parker — James Brown’s right-hand man and the saxophonist on the bulk of his great singles — tried to display more than the hard funk for which he is known and generated a rambling unfocused set; Femi Kuti, son of the late Nigerian bandleader Fela, proved in his third L.A. appearance that he deserves unlimited international stardom.
Parker, supporting the disc “Dial M for Maceo” (What Are Records), hit on high points of his years with James Brown (“Doing It to Death”), P-Funk (“Up for the Down Stroke”) and the JBs (“Rabbits in a Pea Patch) in addition to pitching his new disc with an uninspired version of Prince’s “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold.”
Parker takes all his cues from his former employers, but lacks any organizational skills: He introduces band members over and over, gets his name bellowed between songs and in raps by his son Corey and poorly manages the flow of material. His presentation is so over the top that it suggests that each number will be the last — from the second song to the closer 70 minutes later. As much as he still blows a mean horn, he needs dancers, costumes or a lead singer to get his show even in the same league as Brown or George Clinton.
No matter what Parker did, though, he was going to have a hard time living up to the spectacular hourlong set from Femi Kuti, who is working on a follow-up to his debut disc, “Shoki Shoki” (MCA). Kuti took full advantage of the bowl’s enormous stage, spreading out his band and three dancers to emphasize the arresting visuals as well as the uncompromising groove-based music. His update of Afrobeat, the Africa-meets-James Brown funk that his father invented three decades ago, held tremendous sway over the 8,000 in attendance as the dancing crowd filled the aisles to dance and respond to every one of Kuti’s chants.
A performer who can go toe to toe with anyone in the charisma department, Kuti dazzles in everything he does: singing about love and politics, moving in and out of sync with his dancers, and playing the saxophone in a biting and aggressive manner that should win over any fan of John Coltrane and his antecedents.
Kuti is the first performer since the death of Bob Marley capable of reaching the international masses with a non-American musical style that speaks to an enormous collective soul — he’s just that darn good.