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 The Ohio Players
Steen Sundland

Funk & Roll: The Ohio Players.

The Ohio Players fail to resurrect the past at Richmond Memorial Auditorium

By Nicky Baxter

If the Motor City was responsible for the squeaky-clean soul sound of young America, then the state of Ohio can claim partial ownership of the funk empire. The grand vizer of groove, George Clinton, hails from Blainesfield; Bootsy and Catfish Collins from Cincinnati. Funkateers Zapp are straight out of Hamilton.

Somewhere between Clinton's administration of hardcore jollies and Zapp's decidedly poppier dance-floor fare, you'll find the Ohio Players. And for sheer pre-Prince funk & roll antics, the group warrants mad props.

While the Symbol was still in diapers, guitarist/vocalist Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner and his mates were whipping out superior street funk. But that was 30-odd years ago. Without a label, the band has been reduced to treading water on the chitlin' circuit. If the group's April 12 performance in Richmond is any indication, the Ohio Players will be stuck there for some time to come.

Things began promisingly enough with a whip-cracking version of "Skintight," a bumptious, emphatically rhythmic number. A classic Players' tune, "Skintight" sounded as salacious as the original, with Bonner's distinctive leering vocal leaving little to the imagination.

From "Skintight," the band (four horns, bass, two guitars and keyboards) slid into a syrup-thick instrumental groove battered by Bootsy-sized bass and kick-ass horns, with keyboards knifing intermittently into the mix. With the surprisingly tender "Heaven Must Be Like This," however, the Ohio Players lost their musical footing.

Rather than playing it straight, they brought out some black blonde bombshell who promptly screeched the song into submission. Even after she was done, the band refused to give us what we came for, as Bonner blathered on about something or another while his compatriots noodled aimlessly behind him.

Soap-Box Ballads

Next came an interminably long stretch of soap-box ballads that just about finished off any semblance of the boogie-down productivity we'd all expected. When yet another Ohio Player stepped to the mic to praise the Lord, I retreated to the lobby. Twenty minutes later, he was still at it.

After the impromptu sermon, the funk outfit attempted to reignite things with "Fire." But though their gold-snaring single wrenched folks from their seats, it was too little too late. A golden opportunity to burn the roof off the sucker turned out to be a funereal pyre.

Considering the home-city connection, it made sense that Lakeside shared the bill with the Ohio Players. Like Sugarfoot and his gang, Lakeside is full of nothing but players, replete with a perambulatory, pumping horn section.

The nine-piece unit made a little noise in the late 1970s and early '80s with a clutch of shout-along singles, most memorably "All the Way Live" and "Fantastic Voyage," the joint that kick-started Coolio's career. And just in case, we'd forgotten, one of the vocalists reminded (repeatedly) the half-filled hall that their version was the original and better one.

Well, he got the first half right; as to the latter claim, the jury's out. Maybe it was the boomy acoustics; maybe it was the strangely lackadaisical arrangement--whatever, this evening's "Voyage" just didn't seem to go anywhere.

It was on the slower numbers that the pop-influenced R&B group came up strongest. Particularly impressive was its version of the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." A quick run through at Beatles-speed led the unsuspecting to think this was no more than a send-up, but when the boys settled into a neo-doo-wop mode, it became evident that this was no joke.

Call me biased, but I've always been convinced that R&B acts do a much better job of remaking pop in their own image than pop groups do going the other way; Lakeside did not prompt me to rethink my theory. Treating the song as if it had been written to be a belly-grinder rather than a Brit-pop raver, Lakeside proved that romance still survives in this era of sex-obsessed vulgarity.

All three of the band's vocalists took turns at the microphone, each prompting outbursts of shrieks and fluttering hankies from the women in the house.

In the end, however, neither Lakeside or the Ohio Players seemed capable of making this show the party jam it ought to have been. Or maybe, having been away from the spotlight so long, they just didn't give a damn.

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