TBT: The Billy Cobham-George Duke Band in St. Petersburg 11.07.76
It is interesting that people do not go to jazz concerts to see the featured artists breathe fire, wear wild costumes, prance around knee-deep in dry-ice smoke or smash up equipment. Creem Magazine, for instance, will probably never feature the Billy Cobham-George Duke Band in its “Cars of the Stars” department… or anywhere else, for that matter. John Scofield looks like a Franklin Street wino with his shabby posture and rumpled clothes. Billy Cobham is built like Handsome Dick Manitoba, only with bigger arms. And George Duke is putting on weight and resembles a Teddy bear.
On the other hand, if all of the 15-year-old girls who think that Peter Frampton is adorable ever get a glimpse of bassist Alphonso Johnson on stage, you may never see a picture of Daltry or Jagger or Plant on the cover of Creem ever again. Or Frampton.
But seriously, it was a fair-sized crowd which went to the Bayfront Center Theatre (now the Mahaffey Theater) in St. Petersburg November 7th not to see the Cobham-Duke Band breathe fire, smash equipment or any of that other stuff, but for a better set of reasons. Some just liked jazz. Some went to see drum superstar Cobham display his wares. Others were Mothers’ fans who had seen George Duke stretching out with Frank Zappa during Duke’s long acquaintance with him. And a few made the trek because they had seen Alphonso Johnson as a member of Weather Report.
A good many were there to dispel some doubts and fears, though; fears and doubts stemming from the lack-luster performance turned in by the same band last February at USF [University of South Florida]. It was not the case that the two sets that were played at USF were bad, but they were very boring. They showed no enthusiasm during their first Bay area appearance, and this likely accounted for the less-than-sold out house.
All fears were erased, all doubts forgotten within moments of the opening of the show. All four members were cooking from start to finish without ever letting up.
Billy Cobham still plays with the blazing speed for which he has become justly famous. He will never be accused, however, of economy. Cobham’s biggest drawback is that he sometimes gets too busy. It is like he is trying to play the “Minute Waltz” in thirty seconds, only it takes him about forty. His fills get cluttered at times. This kind of thing happens when the band leader is a drummer, but fortunately it does not detract too much from the overall sound. He adds so much to it in the first place that it really does not matter.
George Duke proved that he could play like he did when he was a Mother. At the USF show, Duke did absolutely nothing that was outstanding. It was disappointing to watch, and this reviewer [Ed. Note: Wow, was I a pompous ass? What? Still am?] wondered whether Duke could play with this band the way he responded to Zappa, constantly pushing and being pushed to brilliant musical peaks. The answer is: He can. He played a little of everything from his myriad keyboards banked around him. Equipment does not make the man (Ronnie Foster of George Benson’s band proved that), but in this case the man makes the equipment, and he makes it do everything. There is probably not anyone who can play all the keys from the grand piano to the numerous synthesizers with more aplomb or talent.
The other most dramatic change from the February concert to the November one was the improvement of John Scofield on guitar. He still looks like a derelict, but he no longer plays like one. His playing was extremely sloppy at the earlier show, and at one point he got himself into a solo from which he could not figure out how to exit. But this time, the man waxed funky. He was a great addition to the band. He and bassist Johnson simply “got down,” especially on the last couple of numbers and the encore.
The man who really holds things together is Alphonso Johnson. He is solid and rock-steady always, whether playing his Fender or running up and down on his fretless bass. If Stanley Clarke is King of the Electrified Bass, then Johnson is the Avis of Bass – and trying harder.
The benefits of being on the road pay off in performances like the St. Pete show. The two and a half hours were filled with funk, some straight-ahead jazz, a bit of fun with George telling a story about interplanetary love, previews from new solo albums by Duke (Liberated Fantasies) and Johnson (Yesterday’s Dream), a couple of “hard rockers,” and one dynamite blues song that almost ended up being “Stormy Monday,” with Scofield shining through. Everybody had a good time, the audience got their money’s worth, and jazz returned to the Bay area.
One last thing. DO NOT FORGET to look for Alphonso Johnson’s pic on the cover of Creem. Probably not Crawdaddy, though.
[This review was originally printed in Music Media magazine, January 1977, Vol, 1, No. 11. Alphonso never did get his picture on Creem. It was great seeing him play with Steve Kimock and record on Gov’t Mule’s Deep End project, though. This band was only together about a year. This show would have been near the end of their run; the album “Live” – On Tour in Europe was recorded during their 19 European dates in July.]