LIVE: The Playing for Change Band @ The Egg, 10/24/09

The internet really is an amazing and powerful thing.

Until very recently, Grandpa Elliott was a blind street singer in New Orleans’ French Quarter, where he sang and played his harmonica for tips from the tourists.

But thanks to Playing for Change’s little music video for the classic Ben E. King soul song, “Stand By Me” – which has now been seen more than 15 million times on YouTube alone – Elliot is an international star.

On Saturday night he was performing in concert at The Egg in Albany, the clear crowd favorite amidst the ten-piece ensemble of musicians assembled from all around the globe.

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With a gruff, gravelled voice, a big white beard, a pair of worn overalls and a straw hat on his head, Grandpa Elliott was the most unlikely rock star, but he captivated the crowd from the very start with the raucous, opening blues number “Fannie Mae,” the first of three tunes that he sang from his new CD, “Sugar Sweet,” throughout the two-hour performance.

But he was far from the only star of the night. The group has a somewhat fluid line-up from tour to tour, and even the program at The Egg – usually the best and most reliable of sources – had a few changes.

For the record, Saturday’s line-up featured five lead vocalists (from left to right, across the stage):
Grandpa Elliott (New Orleans): also on harmonica
Clarence Bekker (the Netherlands): sometimes playing guitar
Titi Tsira (South Africa): the only female of the ensemble
Mermans Kenkosenki (Congo): sometimes percussionist
Jason Tamba (Congo): also acoustic guitarist

There were also five additional musicians:
Steve Molitz (Los Angeles): keyboards
Louis Mhlanga (Zimbabwe): electric guitar
Mohammed Alidu (Ghana): percussion, talking drum, lead vocals
Peter Bunetta (Los Angeles): drums, percussion
Reuben Rodriguez (Puerto Rico): bass

Bluesman Keb’ Mo’ – who was scheduled to headline at The Egg the following night – showed up a night early and joined the band for a romp through Sam Cooke’s classic “Bring It on Home to Me” to kick off the second half of the concert. Surprisingly enough, that was his only appearance of the evening. He never returned to perform “Better Man,” Playing for Change’s latest single featuring – guess who? that’s right, Keb’ Mo’ – on lead vocals.

Yes, it was a musical United Nations summit meeting, and the music was a world-wide amalgam of American soul, African pop, reggae and Latin salsa. And it was truly one of the most uplifting, optimistic evening’s of music that you would be ever likely to hear.

If you weren’t at the show, please take a moment to check out a couple of the Playing for Change videos on YouTube. Perhaps they won’t change your life, but they’ll sure as hell brighten your day. And these days, that’s always welcome…

You can also read my review in the Times Union.

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