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LaBelle at the Chicago Theater
by Vern Hester
2009-01-28

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It's odd that "Lady Marmalade," the slightly risque smash hit single from 1975, is now considered an infectious novelty. An evening in the life of a Creole hooker and her john, it boldly crossed over from Black radio and [ gay ] discos, dragging its album [ Nightbirds ] to gold status and the group behind it into instant celebrity. LaBelle [ Nona Hendryx, Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash ] had been at it since 1961 as a "girl group" to little success [ even losing a fourth member—one Cindy Birdsong—to some other girl group ] . "Marmalade," penned by the high lord of New Orleans soul, Allen Toussaint, not only heralded their musical arrival but something altogether unexpected. Instead of chiffon, bouffants and gowns, the '75 LaBelle came wrapped in spandex, peacock plumes, silver, ornate headpieces, glitter, silver, sky-high platform boots and Dash's silver breastplate ( with nipples—oooh, shocking ) . That the three of them had epic voices and blunt attitudes made them, well, different. After all, '75 was the era of John Denver, the Captain and Tennille and Olivia Newton-John. Surely something had to be done.

But Nightbirds and "Lady" were really touchstones, although cultural historians would have you believe otherwise. The album revealed Hendryx as an astute composer and her contributions addressed where we ( Black women and, though it was never addressed, gays ) really were in '75. "Are You Lonely?," "What Can You Do For Me?" and "All Girl Band" addressed the withered dreams of the '60s from the furious standpoint of Black femininity ( which was way easy for gay boys to get, with all that glam ) . However, alhough glam was the rage, LaBelle jumped off the radio and page becase they had an attitude, sound, and content to go with all the flash. Then, they were about now; forging new identities, changing rules, starting new alliances, redefining roles. It was a whole new messege.

When LaBelle played the Chicago Civic Opera House on the "Nightbirds Tour," it was obvious who was getting that message: Blacks, of course, but also gay men and women of every shape, color, size and flavor. The old suffering queer ways had obviously died with Judy Garland, but LaBelle's tour was a celebration.

LaBelle, of course, was too idyosyncratic to pigeonhole although they hit the usual TV shows, including Cher's series. ( While glammed in silver, feathers and rocket boots, the host still couldn't hold a candle to the group on a duet of "What Can You Do For Me?" ) . The 1976 album Phoenix ( too eccentric ) and '77's Chameleon ( too internal/thoughtful/personal ) came far short of Nightbirds' sales, and they quietly broke up.

Hendryx recorded a rock album and performed with Talking Heads during its Eno period; Dash had a disco smash with "Sinner Man," and sang with Keith Richard's Expensive Winos; and Patti kept on being Patti.

Now, 32 years later, we have a new album, Back to Now ( Verve ) and a reunion tour. It's not fair, of course, to expect LaBelle to mean as much as they did when they did, although the new album tries. Thanks to Lenny Kravitz, Back to Now has some current touches but they hardly compensate for, dare I say it, an old-school gravity.

Thankfully, the Jan. 10 show at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State, had more punch and almost put the new album into context—almost. Side-stepping the theatrical blast of vintage LaBelle, this show had segments of spine-tingling brilliance ( the searing opener, Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" and a velvety smooth "Superlover," for starters ) , then got mired in infuriating pacing. "Messin'" with My Mind" was loud, rushed and toothless, and forgotten gems "Get You Somebody New" and "Come Into My Life" were abruptly snipped mid-song before they had a chance to catch fire. The new single "Rollout" sounded oddly generic ( for them ) but "Lady Marmalade" nearly stopped the show—for the wrong reason. Plopped at the halfway mark, it came too early; but once that groove hit, the audience went apeshit. It was a sight to see the three of them in full unified harmonic fury and the way that the audience reacted. Then ... Patti invited men from the audience to sing with them on stage, and midway it went to pieces. What worked in Patti's solo show last year nearly killed this one; 13 guys at my count, with varying degrees of talent, trampled the biggest groove of the night. This "Marmalade" sucked all the energy and drama right out of the room and plodded on endlessly, dragging the show down into a rut.

Still, "You Turn Me On" ( which taught this former gay teenager about the power of female orgasim—"Natural Woman" my ass ) ," "Nightbirds," and "Isn't It A Shame" got the attentive readings they desereved. Hendryx and Dash finally got to open up on "Can I Talk to You Before You Go to Hollywood?" while the show closed with a thunderous "What Can You Do for Me?"

So was this even a reminder of what LaBelle or their era were really about? Not quite, though any occassion to hear Patti is a big deal, and the rarity of seeing Hendryx and Dash elevated this show to an event. What it did, of course, was make me wish for the re-release of LaBelle's long-unavailable work from that period. With so many of the gay men who attended the Civic Opera gig back in '75 ( and fans, in general ) no longer around, it's a shame our gay community doesn't know what it missed.


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