Smokin’ Grooves Was Full Of Red Solo Cups, Vibes & Great Music [Recap]
Paul Pennington details his time at the 2018 Smokin’ Grooves festival in Long Beach, California, that features appearances from Jimmy Jam and Lianne La Havas.
The night time became the right time. Red solo cups accepted libations awaiting affirmations of “say when” that never seemed to come. Booming conversations attempted to pierce through the smoke, signifying something much louder in the atmosphere. The celebratory repast had begun and life was good.
It had been a long day in Long Beach and that was no more apparent than backstage. Artists hoping to unwind from earlier sets chopped it up with artists who hadn’t performed at all. To the left I see Jimmy Jam and to the right it’s Lianne La Havas. Somewhere in between, the Sa-Ra Creative Partners are casually holding court. As one famous attendee noted, “I figured this would be a pretty good hang.” I couldn’t disagree.
Between the partying and politicking, everyone was finally taking off their metaphorical cool. And then we heard a telephone.
“Girl, this is what we’ve been waiting for!” yelled one anonymous artist.
When Erykah Badu takes the stage, you go. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or who you’re doing it with, you just go. I realized this as I took off on a light sprint to get back in view of the stage only to be passed by the incredibly talented Lion Babe crew, because again… Erykah.
This was Smokin’ Grooves in a nutshell.
The day started with the effervescent delivery of multi-instrumentalist, Maségo, who made the most of his time on stage. It was expected that he might give us a few notes on the saxophone, but what I did not expect was him to bring out the vintage Michael Jackson jacket and bust out a full on rendition of “Dirty Diana”. This was the appetizer that tasted more like a meal.
For such an enigmatic persona, H.E.R. belies any perceived modesty on the stage. Her slick command of mood, managed to make this daytime set feel more like a midnight session’s worth of pillow talk. An accomplished vocalist and songwriter, it is H.E.R.’s engagement using the guitar that provided the exclamation point on what was one the day’s most powerful sets.
If I can be honest, I wasn’t sure what NxWorries would look like in a live setting. The dynamic duo began with a singular roll-out of Anderson .Paak. Oxnard’s finest blessed us with the freshest festival fit bouncing around stage in a summertime-approved short set and matching yellow durag. Eventually joined by his partner in production, Knxwledge, the tandem rocked the crowd with the bare essentials, giving an electrifying show that felt more like a party than a performance.
Shortly after, on the other side of the festival, we got a dynamic display from UK artist, Bruno Major. For the uninitiated, this former studio musician, has worked with all of your favorite artists, while being a virtuoso in his own right. His ability to blend high end musicality with infectious grooves won over a curious midday audience. I never thought I’d see a contemporary crowd bop to the modal changes of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” but there aren’t many quite like Bruno Major.
Every performance from Xavier Omar feels like a house party and this was no exception. Despite the very large crowd attending this set, his endearing vibrations gave the moment a very intimate feel. Running through crowd favorites from “Running Around” to “Blind Man,” it was like one of your homies had jumped on a stage and just ripped it. Nothing but good energy was felt here.
Now, if you’ve ever seen the Bass Gawd, Thundercat, perform live, you’d understand why there was so much excitement around his set on Saturday. That excitement quite literally spilled into the photography pit as spectators made the business decision that ignoring security was much more important than being even foot farther away from the stage. And I’m not mad at that. With so many talented musicians on display that day, it’s hard to put any above the brilliance of Thundercat. Even as someone who works in words for a living, I find myself filing for linguistic bankruptcy at the charge of capturing what he does on a stage. Just got see it yourself.
Between pole dancers and a perfunctory light show, Alina Baraz hit the nighttime air with fierce effectiveness. Jumping between records from her popular joint EP with Galimatias, Urban Flora, to her recently released project, The Color of You, Baraz’s set dazzled the Smokin’ Grooves stage with its amorous appeal and colorful vibes. Much to the excitement of her crowd, Khalid walked out to assist with an incredible performance of their collaborative effort, “Floating”. The final quarter of the night was off to a great start.
From there, DVSN took the reins, giving that brooding goodness that’s made them fan favorites. Backed by an incredible trio of background vocalists, the duo kicked off the set with the salacious “Too Deep,” a record I’ve proclaimed on several occasions to be the greatest composition about [not] pulling out in modern American music history. Paying homage to another achievement in sexual artistry, the group parlayed this into a seamless cover of Ginuwine’s “So Anxious.” It was the flip we deserved.
And then there was Erykah.
As I mentioned before, sometimes it’s simply unrealistic to capture someone’s excellence through words. I can tell you about how she walked us through the creation of Baduizm. I can tell you about the jazzy live reconstruction of “Out Of My Mind, Just In Time.” But what I can’t tell you is what it was like to see my very good friend have his first Erykah Badu experience, what it was like for us to sing her words at the top of our lungs, words that we had memorized over years and years of love and appreciation. I can’t do that. Ms. Badu is a gentle reminder that in this era during which we so often attempt to replicate and transpose moments via social media that it almost always falls short. You can stream an album or download its content, but the last remaining vestige of this rapidly changing industry is the live performance. You can’t stream that and you certainly can’t capture it on instagram, no matter how hard you try.
Somewhere in the middle of her set, as the band played Weldon Irvine’s “Morning Sunrise,” Badu said simply, “The stage is already anointed.”
And she was absolutely right.
If there is to be any knock on this new iteration of Smokin’ Grooves, it is perhaps that there was too much talent. As we walked back to catch our shuttles, you saw people exhausted, but exhilarated. Our shared connection was having run from stage to stage looking to catch the next act while reflecting soberly on the difficult decisions we had to make in missing others. These are the best kind of problems.
If this is what Smokin’ Grooves is to become, I hope it’s here to stay and hope to see you there next year.
Check out the rest of our Smokin’ Grooves highlights in the gallery below.
Paul Pennington is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared at the Revivalist, the Roy Ayers Project, and iRock Jazz. You can follow his social musings on Twitter @paulclabourne.