Menahan Street Band
Make the Road by Walking
Last year Jay-Z, Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones trotted out the sounds of soul to great success. Of course, tastes are cyclical but something about this soul revival sounded fresh and alive. With “Roc Boys,” from his return-to-form American Gangster CD, Jay-Z crafted a single that not only featured his much-ballyhooed rhymes, but a kick-ass sample. Though that sample’s sharp eighth notes and brassy horns may sound like something from a Blaxploitation film from the ’70s, Hova cribbed the tune from “Make the Road by Walking,” the first 45″ single by the Menahan Street Band.
Though they reach into the past, the music on Make the Road by Walking is the sound of today. A joint endeavor by musicians in the Dap-Kings, El Michels Affair, Antibalas and the Budos Band, Menahan Street Band is a supergroup of sorts, a collaboration of the guys behind the hits. Kicking off the album is the title track which, after “Roc Boys,” sounds familiar, as if the tune has been with us for decades. But freed from Jay-Z’s verses, the song takes on a life of its own. This is the definition of cool, a relaxed soul sound that could fit in anywhere from a barbershop in Brooklyn to a pig roast on the beach. It is warm, summery music for the 21st century bachelor pad.
Behind Menahan Street Band is Thomas Brenneck, of Dap-Kings fame, who used his Brooklyn apartment to record the sessions. On tracks such as “Karina” and “The Traitor,” Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly album comes to mind. But this is the goods without the vocals. For all the unsung session players who toiled behind Ray Charles, James Brown and Mayfield, Menahan Street Band is the culmination of a journey from obscurity that gives a face to the men behind the brand name. The bass and horns are the rhythmic superstars on “The Contender”; there are no vocals here, no drugged-out siren superstars to get in the way. We must face the music.
By the time the band races to “Going the Distance,” the theme song from Rocky that closes the album, Menahan Street Band has proven that they are capable of carrying an entire disc without a Winehouse or a Jay-Z. Though Bill Conti’s theme conjures images of Sly Stallone racing around Philadelphia, its inspirational schmaltz is the perfect close to an already rousing disc. But, however great the music sounds on disc, one must imagine Menahan Street Band is even more inspiring live. Like great jazz, recordings can do no justice to instrumental performance.
by David Harris