Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Concert Review; Dennis Coffey, Saturday July 14/07, Harbourfront, Toronto and the Orbit Room (with The A Team)

After playing regularly for years around Detroit, the ex-Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey has played a few rare of out-of-town shows. He rocked the South By South West festival in Austin earlier this year, and at long last a Toronto date was arranged for a show at Harbourfront.
It was a fine Saturday evening to enjoy Harbourfront, but once again the drawback to free concerts here is the number of curious bystanders who often come and go, with cell phones and loud children in full effect. Luckily, Dennis Coffey seemed to have attracted a more pensive element, because the crowd was paying attention to the music. One other drawback is the strict deadline imposed by the city, requiring the last notes at outdoor concerts be played by 11 p.m. sharp. As an opening act, Dennis Coffey had only an hour to show Torontonians what we've been missing, and he made the most of it. Dennis was augmented by a few local musicians, recruited by a local bass player introduced only as "Adrian". Together, they performed about a half dozen instrumental tunes.
The audience was able to get into the groove right away with the infectious opening number, "It's Your Thing". Dennis' cover of this song is on his first solo record, "Hair and Thangs". There was virtually no talking between songs, save for a couple of "Thank You's" for the audience and the backing band, who did an excellent job.
After a meandering instrumental, Dennis Coffey returned to familiar ground, when he played "Just My Imagination". For all the intense sounding guitar effects he still uses, Dennis Coffey led the band with a surprisingly subdued sound. The resulting guitar sound is almost reminiscent of Eric Clapton with Derek and the Dominoes, when he was still willing to cut loose, but not in his Cream style, with the guitar as loud as possible.
Dennis introduced his next number, the funk/ blaxploitation classic "Black Belt Jones". While replicating the distorted, effects laden vocals on this song would be next to impossible on stage, Dennis substituted that motif with a tight jam, bouncing between his guitar and the Moog and Fender Rhodes keyboard flourishes. Not surprisingly, the set's closer was Dennis' biggest solo hit, "Scorpio", from the 1971 Detroit Guitar Band record "Evolution". This track was both a certified dance floor smash back in the proverbial day, and it also joined a select few instrumentals like "Apache" in creating the base for the beginnings of hip hop. While samples of music from James Brown and P-Funk eclipsed "Scorpio", this instrumental was an integral part of the seventies hip hop parties that took off in the Bronx before taking over the world. Tonight's version was in the Dennis' current jazz-funk groove, rather than the hard funk that characterized much of those Detroit Guitar Band records. Dennis Coffey played as well as ever, before he thanked the crowd, and "Adrian", who did a commendable job in assembling the back up band. Adrian also got an opportunity to demonstrate his own considerable capabilities during this final number. Altogether, this was a damn fine and overdue debut from one of Detroit's finest session guitarists.
"Scorpio" wrapped up his Harbourfront set, but Dennis wasn't finished playing to Toronto funk fans; word quickly spread Dennis would likely drop in at the Orbit Room later on this Saturday night.

Dennis Coffey and The A Team; Saturday July 14/07 Orbit Room, Toronto.

This was a huge treat, and a surprise until word started getting around at Harbourfront that Dennis was ready to play some more. Local band The A- Team was the scheduled act, but they were lucky to have been playing this popular little spot on the same night Dennis Coffey was in town, and dropped in with his new bride (they married last weekend) and a couple of friends. The A Team's guitar player, as capable as anyone else in this tight band, was gracious enough to lend Dennis his guitar when Dennis broke a string.

After the band played a few eighties R&B covers, Dennis got up on stage while they were playing Chuck Brown's classic "Bustin' Loose". Dennis certainly did bust loose in here, bringing the funk on harder than he did earlier for the Harbourfront audience earlier this evening. A packed, sweaty club should be funkier than an outdoor stage, in front of a seated audience, in daylight. Sure enough, Dennis didn't disappoint. He went through an array of his effects, throwing all manner of licks, notes and riffs at the appreciative crowd. The extended jam morphed into Terrence Trent D'Arby's eighties pop hit "Wishing Well", and even that soft song rocked with Dennis' help. While he was only on stage for two songs by definition, the protracted demonstration of guitar-led funkiness that Dennis laid out for us was as gratifying as his earlier set. The notion of playing one show, and going to jam later at another venue has all but died out in recent years, so let's also thank Dennis Coffey for reminding us of that grand tradition as well.

Pictures of both concerts can be seen at

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