The forecast of rain moved the season’s final Alive at Five concert under the highway. This always puts a damper on the event, but the city’s regular patrons have learned to muddle through, packing the place anyway.
It didn’t deter Sheila E. either, whose aggressive ’80s dance music can power through the worst of venues. She came out singing “Leader of the Band,” banging on timbales in the front of the stage while singing. Halfway through the song she bounced over to the extra drumset on the left corner of the stage to bang those. The band’s drummer drove the beat while she smashed around the cymbals and tom-toms.
She followed with “Old School,” yelling to the crowd, “it’s called old school because I’m old school.”
Under the highway it was wet, loud and a bit cold for a summer night. An act can’t get too intimate with the crowd below a bypass: you can’t tell stories or sing soft ballads. Instead, the singer has to sing hard, the sax has to blow hard, the drummer has to pound, and whoever isn’t busy on stage has to dance hard. All that happened, each player pushing their parts to the limit, the front half of the crowd responding energetically.
Early on Sheila E. strapped on a guitar and played “Lovely Day,” a mid-tempo tune from her most recent release “Icon.” She pushed the crowd a little too hard to buy her CDs. Fortunately this didn’t last long.
She’s an excellent yeller, and a few times through the show she put the microphone to her mouth and gave a hearty, sustained yell. It sounded good. Her chops on the timbales were equally impressive when she stopped singing and dug into her percussion.
There was no unbelievable moment, instead we got a steady pumping of dance music. The stand out songs included “Oakland N Da House,” “Fiesta,” and of course her hit to close the show, “The Glamorous Life,” the title track to her 1984 record, which Prince wrote for her.
The catchiest tune, which ended the show before the encores, was “The Belle of St. Mark,” a hit for her from the same 1984 record.
Perhaps the most entertaining moment was when Sheila E. came back on stage after the encore and sat down at the drumset to play another solo. This time she showed us she can play. After some fancy stick movement, she pounded a slow and steady beat, prompting the crowd closest to the stage to start chanting together back at her to the beat.
While many came to see her who weren’t necessarily fans, but happy to enjoy free entertainment, there were many up front who were clearly Sheila E. fans. Fans or not, she worked hard to entertain everyone.
Upstate New York’s Conehead Buddha opened the show with their jam-band grooves and fun music. The jamming was toned down a bit for the audience in exchange for smooth, somewhat fast-paced tunes that sounded solid, sung by Chris Fisher. Horns colored the choruses but let the guitars handle the improvising. The group segued from the set’s last song into the instrumental portion of “Stairway to Heaven,” playing the infamous guitar solo, with sax-woman Shannon Lynch singing the final verse.
It felt like an odd warm-up act for Sheila E., and it was, but it was still a good show, and the two groups don’t’ always have to match — at least not at a free show. Introducing cross-genres to new audiences is a good thing.