I got the e-mail back in April: Michael Franks was doing a rare NYC appearance at B.B. Kings in Times Square on October 12th. On the on-sale date, I happened to be in Manhattan so I swung by the box office and grabbed two tickets. October 14th would be my 13th Anniversary, so a perfect night of music was in the bag. If the General Admission tickets were to be believed, I purchased the 3rd and 4th tickets for the 10pm show.
Night of the show, we had a lovely dinner and headed down to 42nd Street a little before the 9:30 door opening. Now, B.B. Kings is closer to 8th Avenue. We came down from 7th, and maybe a quarter of the way down the block (near “Spiderman: Turn of the Dark”) we saw the end of a long line. No way this could be for Michael Franks? Well, it was. A pleasant surprise that he could still pull them in. The stunned couple behind us on line said just that.
For those who need schooling, Michael Franks is one of the great Jazz/Bossa Nova singers still active today. His voice is so sweet, his vocal delivery so laid back – he’s relaxation elixir. Match that with lyrics that are equal parts snark, quirk and romance, and you can see why the long line. Franks signed with Warner Bros. Records in the mid-’70s, and was immediately teamed up with three-fifths of The Crusaders as his band. That set the template for his “sound” on The Art of Tea, and carried through Sleeping Gypsy which added Brazilian textures. Burchfield Nines saw Franks move back East, trading the cream of L.A. studio cats for NY’s heavy hitters including Steve Gadd, Ralph MacDonald and Will Lee.
And so it continued throughout the ’80s, where Franks battled those dreaded synthesizers and largely won, and into the ’90s where he went back-to-basics with the help of Jeff Lorber and Chuck Loeb, on through 2011’s surprise (dropped in our laps, really) Time Together.
So, how was the show?
Amazing. Backed by Charles Blenzig on keyboards (really tasty and tasteful Fender Rhodes, Piano and Clavinet emulators), Sean Conly on upright acoustic bass, Karel Ruzicka on tenor sax, alto sax and flute (and generally on FIRE on all three), Willard Dyson on drums (sounding a LOT like the aforementioned Mr. Gadd), and Veronica Nunn on co-vocals (and excellent scat solos bringing Anita Baker to mind), Franks strolls out with his hot tea and breezes right into “Nightmoves”, the first track on The Art of Tea, like it’s 1975 again in voice and energy. (Incidentally, if Bananarama released “Cruel Summer” today, they’d instantly have to cop to stealing the verse melody from “Nightmoves” and hand over some royalties.)
Franks then slid on through “The Lady Wants To Know”, “Under The Sun”, “Baseball”, and 2011’s “Now That The Summer’s Here” (fitting in seamlessly alongside the classics). “When The Cookie Jar Is Empty” was prefaced with a nice story about how Frankie Crocker made that a heavy rotator on WBLS – bringing to light what a truly visionary programmer Crocker was. Just imagine that happening in today’s tightly-programmed radio environment.
Other highlights included “Rainy Night in Tokyo”, his ’80s radio hit “When Sly Calls” (inspired, we learned, by a record executive who always liked to call Franks to alert him how far DOWN the charts his records were heading…), “In the Eye of the Storm”, possibly his strongest vocal of the night on “Eggplant”, and an absolutely buoyant “Monk’s New Tune”. And how else to encore, but with the song that started it all, “Popsicle Toes”.
Cliche as it might sound, Franks sounds exactly as he did back when, betraying the fact he’ll be turning 70 next year. No discernible vocal grit to sour the sweet. And how sweet it was.
Here’s a Spotify set to help you discover Michael Franks, if you haven’t already, or just to relive his greatest hits: