Live Review

Chocolate Genius - Crystal Ballroom (Portland, OR)

Chocolate Genius on January 20, 2002

Contemporary R&B is too often out of touch with its roots, while contemporary roots music too often lacks soul. There are exceptions (Ben Harper, the Roots, Bob Dylan, Joe Henry), but no one is transcending the genres and making more satisfying and soulful "roots" music than the man who calls himself the Chocolate Genius (Marc Anthony Thompson).

Playing to a large audience (1,200-plus, admitted for free to the venue's anniversary party), few of whom had any idea who he was, the Chocolate Genius played a varied, stunning 45-minute set that won him a lot of converts. The guy taps into a wide variety of the best music of the last 50 years; soul, rock, folk, funk and jazz effortlessly channel right through him. His hybrid "African Americana" draws upon everybody from John Lee Hooker to Curtis Mayfield, John Lennon and Jeff Buckley, but it melds into a completely original sound.

Playing with the Chocolate Genius is somewhat like working with the Vanilla Geniuses Dylan and Waits: You had better be well-versed in a broad array of American music, and comfortable being up in the air without a net. Operating without a set list and improvising wildly, Thompson and his stellar four-piece band (guitarist Oren Bloedow, Jason DeMatteo on bass, seriously old-school drummer Herschel Dwellingham Sr., and guest John Medeski on organ, there because his side project The Word was also on the bill) seamlessly wove parts of other songs into their own -- live sampling, if you will. Bits of Mayfield's "People Get Ready", the Beatles" "Come Together" and Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" appeared as if by magic, knocking the crowd out with an entertaining sucker punch.

Thompson's originals are essentially in the singer-songwriter vein. His latest release Godmusic and the criminally underrated Black Music (1998) are full of well-crafted, intelligent songs of beauty and depth. He performed some of his finest: "Bossman Piss (In My Lemonade)", "Safe And Sound", and Godmusic's centerpiece, "The Eyes Of The Lord". The last one's lyric about the "sexy baby Jesus" made members of the audience squirm, much like his hero John Lennon did when he sang "Woman is the nigger of the world." Thompson is not afraid to challenge his audience. Meanwhile, his over-the-top showmanship and hilarious between-song banter add to the spirit of his memorable stage style.

The finale was the highlight, a rewrite of the Roger Miller country classic "Dang Me", the chorus pretty much intact (except I don't recall the "hang my black ass from a tree" line being in the original) but the verses rewritten into sort of a racial-profiling, Rodney King storyline. The melody line was still there, though played with Funkadelic abandon. Somehow I think Roger Miller would have appreciated it.