As far as mainstream consumption goes, good ol’ soul music hasn’t been a major factor since the mid-to-late 2000s, and even that assessment depends on one’s perspective on what’s considered “good.”
So when recording artists come around with a rich soulful (and hip-hop) sound that harkens back to decades past, one has to appreciate it for what it is. It’s a niche these days, but one that’s being filled nicely by the duo of Raheem DeVaughn and Wes Felton – performing together as The CrossRhodes.
When DeVaughn, a highly talented, Grammy-nominated soul music veteran who dates back to the early part of this millennium, teamed up in 2002 with noted hip-hop poet, actor and Carnegie Mellon graduate Felton, fans may have wondered whether such a pairing was either flash-in-the-pan or a good long-range plan?
Some fifteen years later, they’re still a team – a long-standing, hard-working one at that – who made a stop here in Chicago during their current 11-city “The Great Debate” tour on Sunday, May 21, 2017. They graced the City Winery of Chicago (in the city’s West Loop area) with two shows that gave Chicagoans a much-needed injection of real soul and hip-hop, something the country as a whole could use, quite frankly, and something The CrossRhodes proved more than capable of delivering.
I had the opportunity to see this duo – a virtual yin and yang from the D.C./Maryland/Virginia (or DMV) area – perform during the second, roughly 90-minute show, and needless to say, they gave the audience – mostly consisting of us “grown folks” and some noticeably beautiful women – what it came for, and more.
Imagine Marvin Gaye (or even Donny Hathaway) meets Gil Scott Heron. That’s the vibe the partnership of DeVaughn and Felton brought as they cruised through an impressive catalogue of socially and politically conscious hip-hop/soul jams, some old and some new…some theirs, some not.
The show kicked off just after 9pm with the two amped DMV artists performing their recent single, “Footprints on the Moon,” an uplifting, socially conscious tune (and the title track to their still-pending new album) that addressed the trappings of materialistic living and the pursuit of the “American Dream” in an America where that dream is still not a reality for all. With the constant refrain of “my nigga” as the twosome implored “you deserve the world…the world is yours,” I could imagine that a room full of lost-soul 20-year-olds would clearly have benefited more from the song’s messages of uplift and hope.
Yet, as it was, the 30-and-over crowd in attendance on that night certainly got into this duo, who delivered what amounted to a soul and hip-hop music revival in the artist-friendly, table-seating venue that housed a few hundred people who were more than happy to hear The CrossRhodes’ deliver their musical sermon.
That sermon was given in the form of several songs like “Balance” and “I Woke Up” from the duo’s first album, Limited Budget, Unlimited Quality, and “Praying Prayers” from their current mixtape, The Great Debate Vol. 1. The latter song, “Prayers,” had a musical cadence that harkened back to the old Barry White tune, “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby.” As it played, I wondered how many others had made the same old-school connection.
Raheem DeVaughn, also known as “The Love King,” alternated between an impressive set of tenor and falsetto vocals that justified comparisons he’s had to those great soul legends of the past. Felton’s ad-libs were a perfect complement that often straddled between rapping and his own baritone singing.
DeVaughn and Felton were backed by a 5-piece ensemble that included a disc jockey, “DJ Face,” a keyboardist/pianist, a drummer, a bass guitarist and a “supporting” vocalist. As all good showmen do, the duo gave each band member a moment to shine, and when each person’s time came, he did just that. The drummer was shown some extra love by the audience when it was revealed he hailed from the west side of Chicago.
Another local talent, a blue-eyed soul singer named “Lily K,” got a featured role on the duo’s “3 Sides,” a playful, jazzy, get-your-mack-on groove from their second album, Invitation, which was sung from the perspectives of three people with different takes on the perils of physical attraction. Lily’s vocals complemented the duo’s nicely as her style and presence immediately evoked memories of the late Teena Marie. To me, “3 Sides” was the highlight of the show.
The duo continued to entertain with a performance that was not short on shout-outs. They gave nods to the late Notorious B.I.G., who would have turned 45 that day, as well as the late Malcolm X, whose birthday was two days before, and whose afro-centric messages resonated well with those being delivered in many of the songs the band played.
There were playful moments as well. On “Balance,” DeVaughn and Felton enlisted audience participation by inviting members to contribute percussion with their wine glasses and spoons. In a YouTube-worthy moment, the audience obliged by instinctively creating a set of beats that were definitely on-point.
On that same tune, DeVaughn enlisted one half of the audience to chant “Balance” while, in unison, Felton’s side shouted, “it’s like the yin and the yang.”
Towards the end of the show, the duo brought a little of their home-town go-go music to the Chi with a cover of Junkyard Band’s “Sardines (and Pork n Beans),” then gave the home crowd some of its own vibe by covering a little house music (Cajmere’s “Percolator”). No need to state which tune got more audience response at this particular setting.
The CrossRhodes, so named for the Rhodes piano that features prominently in their own music as well as providing the soundtrack to many a hip-hop and soul tune throughout history, and for its representation of the artists as “Rhodes scholars” in their own musical vein, did not disappoint. The only disappointment is that brothers like Rah and Wes aren’t enjoying even more success in a music market that’s been stunted by the more ratchet hip-hop and R&B that’s dominated much of this millennium.
It may sound elitist, but clearly a music revolution is needed today. Real music has been buried in some dark, soul-music graveyard for a long time now.
DeVaughn and Felton – as the CrossRhodes – are doing their part to resurrect music and some much-needed messages on tour and on record for a broader audience to hear.
Some lucky people got to hear their gift on a chilly Sunday night in Chicago’s West Loop this week.
Will you be ready to receive it when it comes to a city near you?