What is global soul? Rickey Minor, in league with Stevie Wonder and a wildly diverse lineup of nine acts from here, there and everywhere, tried to deal with that question in a big, potentially unwieldy show at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night. Maybe they didn’t put a definitive answer on the boards, but it didn’t matter, for they patched together a surprisingly unified – and at times thrilling – concert, a weeklong festival compressed into a space of just over three hours.
Minor solved the immense problem of squeezing in ten acts without disruptive setup delays by bringing along his versatile band from “The Tonight Show” as backup for almost everyone. These guys apparently can play fluidly in any style imaginable – and they did so with an unnervingly quick and precise grasp of each performer’s idiom as Minor thumped along on bass. Inevitably, perhaps, a few things had to be dumped – a promised medley from Marvin Gaye’s 40-year-old “What’s Going On” album was reduced to just “Mercy, Mercy Me” – yet a lot got through.
Ah, but Minor almost didn’t reckon with the unpredictable quirks of his headliner. Wonder had the virtually-sold-out Bowl hanging quietly on his every word as he rambled through musical-verbal tributes for two American soul heroes who died young (Jesse Belvin and Sam Cooke), and saluted Ray Charles with a very convincing “What’d I Say.” Time management isn’t one of Wonder’s strengths, though, and thus, his set only had room for one number of his own. But it was a killer: “Superstition,” played as funky as only he can on an original Hohner D6 clavinet.
Space, alas, prohibits one from detailing each and every act, but there were some heartwarming breakouts. After decades of hard knocks, 63-year-old soulster Charles Bradley experienced perhaps the greatest moment of his life electrifying the Bowl with “This World (Is Going Up In Flames)” – his raw voice wracked with authentic pain. Rocky Dawuni from Ghana achieved a vocal fusion of King Sunny Ade and Bob Marley; crouching, running, getting the crowd excited.
Grace Potter came on like Tina Turner transformed into a young white girl, a comparison made explicit by “Proud Mary.” Angeleno Mia Doi Todd’s short set stuck with Brazilian flavors, Niger native Bambino’s stinging electric guitar jumped to a hypnotic rattling groove, and Janelle Monáe sang the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” adorably, somehow managing to execute some of her signature dance steps in a small space.
Finally, the kids from the YOLA Orchestra backed Wonder, Minor, and all of their guests in “What’s Going On” – a big, joyous, sonically authentic performance bathed in a riot of rainbow-lit color, followed by an equally rocking encore from Stevie, “Higher Ground.” In effect, the early-’70s innovators from Motown had the last word on what is global soul, and that’s as good as any.