On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match in Kinshasa, Zaire. Regarding the fight, Ali’s loquacious corner-man Drew “Bundini” Brown noted about Ali fighting in Africa that the bout symbolized the icons going “f]rom the root to the fruit, that's where everything started at. This is God's act, and you are part of it. This is no Hollywood set, this is real.”
Washington, DC-based Aaron Abernathy and his backing band Nat Turner’s performance at quaint, underground Nation’s Capital venue Tropicalia was as rooted in music’s historical traditions and as long as four “Rumbles in the Jungle,” plus similarly as “real” in presentation. Just like Ali, at the end of his 90-minute set, the soulful singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/composer who has just released his first, critically-acclaimed album Monologue emerged exhausted, yet victorious in winning over a jam-packed room of R & B fanatics. In doing so, he’s uniquely positioned himself well to come after the crown of being the champion of a new generation of soul and funk-inspired artists.
As an album, Monologue stuns in it’s ability to float into universally memorable, yet dreamlike space in the minds of all who listen. Monologue is a teenage love story-as-album, an homage to the space between being not yet old enough to not put your parents’ wishes first, but certainly being man enough to desire the joys of adulthood with a courted mate. Live, that journey isn’t a dream; it’s a very real, foot-stomping, whooping, hollering and sing-along celebration of what it feels like to be 18 and ready to move and groove in all ways moving and grooving is possible in an 18-year old’s mind and spirit.
Maybe most important-to-note regarding Thursday’s performance was the effortless yet workmanlike nature to what the black and white checkered sport-coat and wildly goateed Abernathy did onstage with Nat Turner. For instance, “I See You” is the type of torch song that requires a band and vocalist to marshal the funk stylings of the Ohio Players, Rick James and Prince’s Revolution, while not allowing it to feel like pastiche-laden homage. Not only did they succeed in allowing the song to be classically-inspired yet refreshing in the modern day, but they also excelled in crafting a funk that’s perfectly attuned to Abernathy’s own intonations. Ab’s funk/soul mix is grounded in both an assured technical and musical swagger, as well as a working-class approachability that makes you a fan of his humanity as exposed in song.
The funk is key here.
Here’s a funk style particular to a certain segment of America’s midwest that’s too often forgotten in conversations about that emotion-laden sonic feel. P-Funk has Detroit roots, and James Brown was born on the border of South Carolina and Georgia. However, in hearing Cleveland-born Abernathy and band run through a 15-minute mini set that included songs from Minneapolis-born Prince, Gary, Indiana’s Jackson 5, and Dayton, Ohio’s Lakeside, there’s a deep and bluesy swing apparent in Abernathy’s sound that is less of the rock and jazz to which so much of funk’s legacy is usually attached.
Between album material and covers, Aaron Abernathy and the Nat Turner Band did a stellar job of playing music you remember loving in a way that felt as if it could stand by it’s own accord. Or, if new to this particular brand of funk and soul music, he won you over instead with an inherently ear-worming and body moving tale with of being 18 and torn in choosing between the everlasting love of parents and family, or the first love of a young woman. Just like the aforementioned “Rumble In The Jungle,” hearing that story while seeing this concert was a knockout of a time that will perpetually connect to those who were present in an unforgettable manner.
Marcus Dowling can be reached @marcuskdowling and can be found all around the internet.