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Review: Larry Graham rocks Paisley Park with old-school funk

by Youa Vang

January 23, 2016

Paisley Park is a like a black hole for time. If you forgot your watch at home, with no cell phones allowed, time moves at its own pace, leaving you unsure of the hour – much like a casino, minus the liquor and cigarette smoke.

Last night, the never-ending kaleidoscope projections added to the surreal feel of the evening – if you whitened your teeth beforehand, they’d be glowing purple under the blacklight. If Thursday evening was the yin with Prince playing stripped down versions of his songs, then Friday night was the yang of the two-evening (so far) gala, bringing the volume to the rafters.

Opening the evening were the seven-piece Minneapolis band Pho; the young group were hand-picked to get the crowd dancing. As with all jam bands, it’s difficult to tell where one song ends and the other begins, and the first five songs became one big bowl of melted chocolate. In the latter portion of their set, the songs found their footing and the bass and brass-heavy tracks such as “Dr. Drake” and their closing number “Face” moved in a groove laid out by Pho’s predecessors many decades ago.

After Pho left the stage, the eagerly expectant crowd danced to a DJ set filled with early ‘90s dance tracks and some Bruno Mars, showing that Mars isn’t far-removed from the grandfathers and fathers of soul and funk. Then, clad all in white and purple, funk legend Larry Graham’s band Graham Central Station took the stage amidst faux ficus trees and black velvet curtains.

Graham himself made a grand entrance from the back with his all-white suit and white bass as he sang the opening lines to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You.”

(As a member of Sly and the Family Stone in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Graham invented slap-pop bass playing, sparking a revolution in the art of his instrument. A Texas native, Graham began playing and collaborating with Prince in the late 1990s and has lived in the Twin Cities area ever since.)

When people say you feel music in your heart and soul, and not the mind, they must have been talking about Graham. His lyrics aren’t always particularly deep — most of them are about getting down and dancing — but the soul lives in the sound and notes, not the words.

Everything about Graham and his band’s set and stage attire were carefully thought out — the band even threw in a cover of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” as Graham lifted his bass over his head — but they excelled best when they moved past the deliberate parts of the show and really let the emotions flow.

As the band broke into a rendition of Mavis Staples’s “I’ll Take You There,” Prince came out from backstage, wearing a made-to-fit brocade vest, to watch the rest of the show on the side.

Graham thrives the most when he’s dancing and moving his 69-year-old body to the music, but his acoustic set, with the love songs “Ole Smokey” and “One In a Million You,” was the core of the evening. Usually bass players get the short end of the stick in a band, but there was no doubt that a legend was making magic in front of you as Graham’s long fingers moved along the frets.

The night would not end on a slow note, so with Graham's wife and former Family Stone bandmate, Tina Graham, jumping onstage, the group extended the evening with a jam on “Dance to the Music” and invited audience members to shake their stuff onstage.

It was hard to tell who had more fun Friday evening — the two young teenage boys who couldn’t take their eyes off of Prince, the ladies who were standing three feet away from Prince and didn't even see him, or Graham’s sound tech who knew and sang along to every word of every song.

Writer Youa Vang is appreciative of all genres of music — even country. When not writing about music, she can be found working on her standup comedy and cross-stitching mischievous sayings while watching The Simpsons.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.