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The day Chuck Brown died, fans gathered in front of the Howard Theatre for a sprawling candlelight vigil as outdoor speakers cranked go-go into the streets. Yesterday, on the first anniversary of his death, a more sedate celebration of Chuck’s life unfolded in front of the historic theater as WPGC played classic Chuck songs and vendors hawked remembrance T-shirts. The gathering was a prelude to the sold-out show scheduled to begin later that night inside the Howard: a memorial performance by the Chuck Brown All-Star Go-Go Tribute Band, joined by numerous guest artists and devoted fans of D.C.’s late Godfather of Go-Go.
Not long after the show kicked off, energy inside the theater built quickly. This wasn’t a somber affair. Drummer Milton Smith, conga player Mighty Mo Hagans, and bassist Karlston Ice Ross kept the trademark beat go-going, accompanied by two keyboardists, a three-piece horn section, and guitarist Frank Scooby Marshall, who used a credit card as a pick. Axeman and Rare Essence member Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson joined in later on. Various vocalists stepped behind the mic to deliver a mix of new tracks and go-go classics.
At first, the flavor was contemporary: Keyboardist Sweet Cherie Mitchell-Agurs rapped Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” over funked-up D.C. polyrhythms. But later on, Scooby delivered the Caribbean-inflected “Run Joe,” and various singers broke out into “Chuck Baby Don’t Give a…” Trouble Funk guitarist and vocalist Big Tony got the crowd involved with his group’s early ‘80s hits “Let’s Get Small” and “Drop the Bomb,” with the keyboardists adding those patented D.C.-meets-Kraftwerk synth lines.
Soon Johnson and Rare Essence’s James Funk were guiding everyone through “Hoochie Coochie Man,” along with Rare Essence’s own “Freaky Deak.” The cavalcade of stars continued with Backyard’s Big G, Raheem DeVaughn, Kimberly Michelle, and E.U.’s Sugar Bear, whose buoyant, nearly cartoonish drawl on “Da Butt” remains as satisfying as ever. But while Sugar Bear and others played their own hits, the focus was still on the departed, as fingers shot upward toward the sky and professions of love for Chuck were never far from anyone’s lips.
Almost throughout, the performance felt joyous; Chuck’s vocalist daughter K.K. took on a sad tone briefly near the end, but most in the house seemed to relish the chance to celebrate Brown and more than three decades of the music he pioneered. People strolled on stage to dance and gyrate; birthdays and various neighborhoods got shout-outs. The show went on nearly two hours, wrapping up shortly before 1 a.m.
Through his appearances on local commercials and his collaborations with Eva Cassidy, Chuck Brown’s audience was probably more diverse—-economically, geographically, and racially—-than any other go-go artist. But last night the hand-waving crowd consisted mainly of his core, 25-and-older African American fanbase. For the closing number, all of the guests returned to the stage to perform Chuck’s warm version of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair.” For Brown’s relatives and fans, the loss still hurts, but touching performances like that go a long way towards keeping the go-go community together and Chuck Brown’s legacy alive.
Photos by Sheila Rieser