Review: Memphis Instrumental Trio The City Champs Returns With A Long Awaited Dose Of Memphis Funk And Soul

The City Champs | Luna ‘68 | (Big Legal Mess)
4 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

They’re back.

It has taken a decade between Memphis instrumental outfit The City Champs’ first one-two punch of releases in 2009-2010 and this follow-up. Why the wait? The threesome of music veterans has been busy in the interim, individually playing with everyone from St. Paul & the Broken Bones (keyboardist Al Gamble) to Memphis’ hard working Bo-Keys (guitarist Joe Restivo). And while things have changed somewhat in The City Champs’ sound, specifically moving towards a more vintage soundtrack approach in a few songs, the band’s basic jazz/soul strut remains.

The trio clearly borrows from the similar styled playing of fellow Memphis legends Booker T. & the MGs and Willie Mitchell, who set the tone for this music back in the ‘60s. But on Luna ’68 they move on up by bringing a tougher edge to the table. That’s particularly evident not just in Gamble’s occasional use of synthesizers on the title cut, but in Restivo’s edgy guitar lines that sound more like Frank Zappa at times than Steve Cropper. And when the two trade licks on “Freddie King for Now,” the concoction is combustible. There’s plenty of raw funk too, especially in the bubbling bottom of “Mack Lean” and drummer George Sluppick’s in-the-pocket work on “Skinny Mic.” Those familiar with the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio’s vibe will jump all over this as the two bands seem musically and philosophically aligned.

These are all originals save for a cover of Tony!Toni!Tone!’s soulful hit “Thinking of You,” a left field choice that clicks. The vibe shifts to a more pensive, spacey energy on the subtle ballad “Hanzo” and the closing “Voyage to Vega.” The latter is the disc’s longest and most experimental moment as Gamble edges into almost avant-garde territory in the middle of the proceedings until drummer Sluppick brings things around with his steady backbeat as Restivo lays back. Oddly the jam fades out as he solos, leaving us with a cliff hanger as to where that performance went before it was edited.

The Fat Possum label’s Bruce Watson produced the sessions at his Delta-Sonic Sound studio in Memphis, which might be the ultimate imprimatur for the unembellished, roots oriented playing The City Champs display on these nine selections. Hopefully they won’t wait as long for their next move.        

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