The Bay Area has an amazing history of legendary musicians, although people tend to focus primarily on our 60’s hippy days when it comes to the history books. People often forget about our rich R&B history. Oakland was the birthplace of Sly & The Family Stone, Tower of Power, En Vogue, Sheila E, and many, many more. Tony! Toni! Toné! have been an Bay Area institution for nearly 25 years, and in recent years, they’ve started a tradition of playing the iconic Yoshi’s in Jack London Square right before Christmas. I had the honor of seeing this band for the first time at the last set of that six show residency last night.
The show opened with a short film where a trio of young kids re-enacted Tony! Toni! Toné!’s forming. It was brief and adorable, yet the right way to kick of a show that was largely rooted in nostalgia. The back up band, complete with horns, organ, Prince & The New Power Generations’ Levi Seacer, Jr on guitar, and original drummer Timothy Riley. The band warmed up the crowd with an instrumental version of the Shuggie Otis classic “Strawberry Letter 23.” Band leader Dwayne Wiggins then popped out, picked up a guitar, and played a searing solo, followed by vocalist Amar Khalil, the man that replaced original singer Raphael Saadiq, who we all know went on to a highly successful solo career.
The set kicked off with a high energy rendition of “If I Had No Loot,” the single from 1993 that helped inspire the late 90’s neo soul movement. It was a perfect wedding of the “new jack swing” sound that was popular at the time and a throwback to the live band focused R & B of the 60’s and 70’s. Khalil, who mentioned from the stage that he’s been part of the group since 1999, will eternally be known as Raphael Saadiq’s replacement, as is the case anytime a lead singer is replaced. Despite that, he proved to be an impressive lead vocalist. His energy is amazing, and his vocal chops are quite good. The man does not know how to stop moving. He believed that the stage was merely a suggestion, not a required unit of containment. I spent a lot of time on the lip of the stage, but also wasn’t afraid to run through through the crowd, singing and dancing on railings and table tops throughout the set. (I hope that he didn’t step in anyone’s sushi!) During “It Never Rains (In Southern California),” Khalil, in classic soul tradition, fell to the floor and sang right in the face of an unsuspecting female patron in the front row.
Although Khalil was fantastic if his new role of lead singer, Wiggins was still the band leader. He introduced every song. Everyone on stage looked to him for queues. His guitar playing, which seems to have it’s roots in the electric Chicago Blues style, is amazing. He lead the band through some delicious extended vamps that remained interesting throughout the journey. Admittedly, there were a few moments where the band leaned dangerously close to “jam band” territory, with songs like “Little Walter” and “Just Me and You” running dangerously close to the 10 minute mark. Happily, it never felt like the band was noodling. Even in the more extended jams, things still felt like they were under control.
The set which was about two hours long, was great. I’m sure everyone in the crowd felt like they got their money’s worth by the time the band started the set closer. The show ended with “Let’s Get Down,” and featured members of the pop group PopLyfe, which is made up of Dwayne Wiggins’ sons and nephew. This allowed for Wiggins to just sing and not play guitar for a bit. This already felt like an explosive ending of some sort of historical significance, bridging two generations of soul music together. They played a verse, with the Wiggins boys proving to have their father’s instrumental chops, and they managed to get the crowd on their feet for the first time during the show. We were dancing and having a great time.
Then, for the first time in probably 15 years, something happened. Something that, as recently as 2010, was something that seemed an impossible dream. But, for 30 whole seconds, history was made on stage at Yoshi’s. Raphael Saadiq popped out from backstage, sang a verse of “Let’s Get Down,” and disappeared almost as quickly as it came.
He sounded great, and looked like he was having a blast with his old bandmates. However, it was over practically before it started, and and ran backstage mere moments later. It was the best Christmas present anyone could ask for. The band kept going, bringing audience members on stage to dance, and vamp’d it out until their set time was over, with members of PopLyfe and Tony! Tony! Toné! all casually switching instruments, and, literally keeping the party going as long as it seemed they could.
In the end, it was a really fun way to spend a Christmas Eve-Eve, enjoying a legendary East Bay institution in a legendary East Bay venue. It all felt like home.
If I Had No Loot
Thinking Of You
It Never Rains In Southern California
Lay Your Head On My Pillow
Just Me and You
-Levi Seaver, Jr Guitar Solo-
Whatever You Want
Let’s Get Down (w/ PopLyfe and Raphael Saadiq)