Music at the Intersection | 09.10.21

Left to right: Tonina, Lee Fields, Roy Ayers, Dave Grelle

Let me tell you just how awesome my Friday was. When business hours ended, I strolled downstairs from my job in the Grand Center Arts District, crossed the street for a fantastic tacos-and-margaritas dinner, walked along Washington Boulevard to The Big Top (a special-events venue made longer-term structure during the pandemic), showed my vaccination card to receive my wristband, and wandered the neighborhood for amazing music all night long. For me and many others who spend time in this part of the city, this dream has been long in the making. Music at the Intersection finally made it a reality, kicking off on a Friday evening and partying through Sunday night.

The full MATI lineup was wonderfully stacked, so the choice of days was tough. But I had my sights set on Friday night, with Roy Ayers as my biggest draw. The jazz-funk legend closed out The Fox on Day 1, preceded by Lee Fields & the Expressions as well as St. Louis’ own Tonina. Originally, Day 1 festivities were to conclude with Ikebe Shakedown, but a Covid case within the touring crew forced some reorganization of the schedule, with Dave Grelle’s Playadors now capping the night at The Dark Room.

Covid precautions were top of mind of organizers. Proof of vaccination/negative Covid test as well as masking indoors were required to attend. To ensure social distancing within The Fox, all ticket purchases were given what appeared to be a random seat assignment, so that attendees were spaced judiciously throughout the venue. This meant that some seats were better than others, but people tended to relocate themselves—still respectfully well-distanced—to fill in empty areas once the artist got a few songs into their set.

We settled into our seats back by the sound board just in time to catch a bit of DJ Tom “Papa” Ray laying down some mood-setting tracks. Live music started with singing, songwriting, and bass-playing powerhouse, Tonina. She hasn’t been gone from St. Louis for long, having recently relocated for a job opportunity in Los Angeles, but the set served to put a finer point on the talent she has taken with her. She commands her voice like her second instrument, rich and resinous like a woodwind, acrobatically traipsing her vocal range like the nimble fingers of an expert player flying along the keys.

Tonina. Photo courtesy of Music at the Intersection.

Tonina’s set was spectacular under the spotlights of The Fox, but it would have been equally at home as an epic, late afternoon/early evening outdoor music fest, conjuring vibes of a breeze in the setting sun while the crowd half-lounges in a blanket/half-grooves in the waning daylight. Bilingual lyrics spanned English and Spanish (with ceceo) but always with Tonina’s smooth, gliding tone. Some familiar and some newer selections brought us Caribbean rhythms and Stewart Copeland-style drums, Latin guitar strumming, and effects-heavy electric sax. The last track probably could have supported a little salsa action if only we had a dance floor.

After Tonina’s set, some of us filed back outside for a mask break and refreshments. Waiting on the sidewalk, I ran into concert-goers I haven’t seen since everything shut down. We chatted about how great it was to finally have a festival in the concentration of spectacular venues in Grand Center and how great it will be to see this fest evolve. We compared schedules and tips—which acts were not to be missed, which venue had the best drinks… It was casual, a reminder of how things used to be, when you could leisurely run into people you know, just by virtue of being around. Man alive, how I missed that. We also compared seat assignments and determined to move a little closer if space still seemed to permit.

The Expressions took their places and prepped the audience for Lee Fields’ entrance in a gold and black quilted jacket and matching embroidered kufi hat over an otherwise all black ensemble. Lucky us—Fields told us it was the first live performance he had given in “a long time,” which seems like a (necessary) shame given the optimistic (and much needed) message of love and joy that he brings. He asked if we needed someone to talk to. He encouraged us that we will, in fact, get over this Covid thing. And of course, he serenaded the ladies. The band grooved in unison around him, casting a feeling of serenity as the gently crashing tide rolled back and forth, one foot to the other, back and forth again.

Photo of Lee Fields by Simon Ertler, courtesy of Music at the Intersection.

After Lee Fields’ first song, we were antsy for a better view of the stage, but also anxious to bring our applause and enthusiasm closer to the band. We picked a couple seats in an empty row with no one for rows behind or in front. I’ve never been that close nor had that amount of personal space in The Fox, and it was fantastic. Only one other couple moved into the area during the set, finding what appeared to be their actual assigned seats. When Fields asked us to get on our feet or clap along, we didn’t feel the usual ethical quandary of whether to obstruct our neighbors’ views or oblige the band (answer: always oblige the band), because there was plenty of room to see over/around and adjust. I would love to see this festival grow in the coming years, but I also appreciated the luxurious amount of space to work with.

Lee Fields was in excellent form, dazzling us with the occasional spin and pouring all this physical strength into those piercing shrieks you rarely hear outside an old James Brown recording. “Money is King” brought the bassline and tension that continue the Godfather of Soul sound with gratifying fidelity. After a brief departure from the stage, he reappeared in a new matching vest to close us out with the delightful “Ladies,” calling out a few women in the audience who caught his eye with his classic line, “I know yo man is pleased / All the way down to his knees”.

Another brief intermission and beverage run later, it was the act I had been so anxiously awaiting. Roy Ayers is a later-in-life discovery for me. He is a vibraphone virtuoso, vocalist, composer, and champion of Afrofuturism. A cursory review of his immense catalog and you will likely recognize his fundamental material, which has been sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, covered by Erykah Badu, and co-created with Fela Kuti. Recently, he has worked with Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on several Jazz is Dead projects, which is how I got sucked in. His wealth of recordings means I can listen all the livelong day for eternity and probably still never hear it all. I had been contenting myself with this, worrying I might never have the chance to see him live, but MATI proved me wrong. And though Ayers himself is relatively late in life, he lights up like a firecracker when he has those mallets in his hands.

Roy Ayers. Photo courtesy of Music at the Intersection.

On stage, Ayers was all smiles. A tremendous grin, ear-to-ear, gazing out at the audience, pretty much start to finish. He surrounds himself with incredible talent, from the multi-instrumentalist stationed at the keys in white to the bassist looming behind Ayers in all black, and they adeptly kept the set moving from one hit to the next—”Red, Black, and Green,” “Searching,” “Spirit of Doo Do,” and an extended “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”—with just the right touch of solos from all.

As an extra treat, it was Ayers’ 81st birthday! I actually got to sing the words, “happy birthday, Roy Ayers, happy birthday to you” to the man himself, right there in the flesh. And at 81, the Ayers lowering-then-dropping himself gingerly onto a stool seemed a completely separate being from the Ayers standing at the vibraphone. Shuffling back to his stool, he appeared to be feeling his age. But I imagined him plotting while seated, because the minute he took up those mallets, he was intent upon making his harmonic vision a reality, zigging and zagging with deliberation and speed that breathed vitality through him.

This set was by far the liveliest and grooviest of the night. If we tried to sit down, the band reminded us to get up and move—”I wanna see that hump back foot stomp!” If we seemed too sedate, the band compelled, “Everybody scream!” There was dancing in the seats and dancing up the aisles like I’ve never seen in the austerity of The Fox. It was the pure ecstatic joy of presence in the moment that is unique to live music, and it was one of those nights I did not want to end.

However, all good things must end, including Roy Ayers’ epic set. I was tempted to call it a night and end on that brilliant note, but since we were already out, it seemed only proper to check out the last act of the night. And I’m so thankful we had the sense to soak up every last bit of the festival. Blissed out on that Ayers performance, a train of us filed out of The Fox and down the street to The Dark Room.

The Grandel found itself a convergence of giddy festival goers from across the venues, all looking for one final party—and we found it. And sad as I was to see Ikebe Shakedown dropped from the schedule, I honestly think it worked out for the best. An inaugural festival celebrating St. Louis’ musical heritage fittingly closed Day 1 with an ensemble of incredible local talent, and we were eager to pile on the praise for the Playadors.

Dave Grelle of the Playadors. Photo courtesy of Music at the Intersection.

The possibilities are nearly endless when you bring together a drummer, a percussionist, a keyboard, four horns, one guitarist, and three singers – all some of St. Louis’ finest. They played some originals, surprisingly complex and tight arrangements, as well as some familiar tunes, including a heartwarming version of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and an enthusiastic cover of Shuggie Otis’ “Inspiration Information,” as we were all feeling the “Dreaming, laughing, smiling, having fun” vibe. It was a mood I haven’t shared with others in too, too long.

I knew I wouldn’t fully realize how much I miss live music until it was back. And it was exactly as prophesied. The single-night experience was even more exhilarating and life-affirming than I anticipated. I tip my hat to the organizers who made this dream a reality, despite all the challenges Covid threw in their way. And another tip of my hat goes to my friends and neighbors across the city who brought their zeal for music A game as well as their respect for others to make this night a grand success. I wish I had budgeted my resources to attend all three stellar days of the festival. I won’t make the same mistake again. Thankfully, I think I’ll get another shot at it next year. | Courtney Dowdall

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