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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Twenty-Five Years of Legendary Performances at MetroTech

Danny Kapilian has brought some of the biggest and most exciting names in music to the BAM R&B Festival at MetroTech, our free Thursday-afternoon summer concert series, since 1995. Burning Spear, Percy Sledge, Sharon Jones, Ashford & Simpson … the list of all-stars who have transformed MetroTech Commons into a musical hotspot over the years is endless. We asked Danny about his original vision for the festival, some of the most memorable performances, and what he’s looking forward to this year.

How did this all start?
In 1994, Joe Melillo asked if I’d be interested in producing a festival at MetroTech, which was only recently built in Downtown Brooklyn. There was a fledgling BAM series of live events there that were not as successful as hoped. I lived very close by, and understood who the audience would be at MetroTech. I recommended moving the shows from Friday 5pm to Thursday 12pm, so we’d have a captive lunchtime crowd on a day that’s not a weekend. Additionally, I felt it was important to entertain with popular artists. Our first-ever show in June 1995 starred Percy Sledge (“When A Man Loves A Woman”).

What makes the festival unique?
First, we are the only R&B festival in the entire Northeast. To me, R&B is an all-encompassing title that covers the broad spectrum of Black American music and its influences in all forms and styles: jazz, soul, blues, gospel, hip-hop, reggae, New Orleans, doo-wop, fusions of all sorts, rock, West African and South African, Latin, and much, much more. Secondly, this is arguably the most popular music there is in the United States, and it is a vast world of music that does not get presented and celebrated enough in a festival context. (There is JazzFest and the Essence Festival in New Orleans, but we need this here in NYC!) Finally, our physical set-up at MetroTech is intimate (a low stage close to the audience), and it’s beautiful with all of the trees keeping everyone a bit cooler on hot summer afternoons.

How has MetroTech impacted the Brooklyn community?
The BAM R&B Festival is the best gift to the communities of Brooklyn and surrounding areas. Many of the great artists we present only play ticketed theaters in NYC, and some don’t come here at all. The feeling shared among MetroTech workers on their lunch breaks, and community folks all together, is just an immense joy.

How have you been able to sustain and push the original concept forward for 25 years?
First of all, the music and artists we present are among my favorites. So it’s easy to remain dedicated and passionate about it. On the business side, apart from this festival, I’ve been a concert and special live music event producer since the mid-1980s, bringing programs not only to BAM, but many renowned theaters and festivals across the US and worldwide. So I parlay my experience knowledge and most important my professional relationships to best benefit the festival.

Many legendary artists have performed at the BAM R&B Festival at MetroTech. Which performances stand out and why?
First and foremost, I must mention with deepest honor and remembrance the many great performing artists who we have presented through the first 24 years at the festival who have since passed, including Percy Sledge, Johnny Maestro, Jerry Gonzales, Harold Melvin, Buckwheat Zydeco, Bobby Blue Bland, Rufus Thomas, Ruth Brown, Soloman Burke, Cuba Gooding Sr., Wendell and Popsy Holmes, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Henry Butler, Pops Staples, Bo Diddley, Ben E. King, Leon Russell, Johnnie Johnson, Fontella Bass, Little Milton, Wilson Pickett, Roger Troutman, Chuck Brown, Roy Hargrove, Sharon Jones, Odetta, Billy Paul, Nick Ashford, Andy Palacio, James Cotton, Otis Clay, Phoebe Snow, Richie Havens, Allen Toussaint, Bernie Worrell, Gary Shider, Geri Allen, and Charles Bradley.

As for the memorable concerts, there are too many to go through, but here are some that come to mind: Wilson Pickett, who had just had heart surgery and specified in his contract a 70-minute maximum show—and then I couldn’t get him off the stage after more than two hours. Burning Spear was nearly retired from touring when we presented him, and the reggae crowd showed up in droves - the single biggest audience we ever had. George Clinton and P-Funk’s first appearance with us turned MetroTech into the craziest funk party imaginable. Snarky Puppy brought out the coolest, hippest “Williamsburg-ian” crowd we’ve ever had. Leon Russell seemed to be severely slowed down by age as he made his way to the stage, but the moment he sat down at the piano he lost 40 years and the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis took over. Phoebe Snow and Richie Havens’ performances were among the most riveting moving sets we’ve ever had, moving everyone to tears—and were both outwardly grateful for being presented at an R&B festival rather than a rock theater. For the second appearance by Booker T and the MGs, I brought in Sharon Jones as a guest lead singer, and they tore the place apart. The Stylistics, featuring all their original lead singers, not only drew one of the biggest crowds we ever had, but was by far the most amazing singalong in our 24 years so far… everyone knew every word. Rufus and Carla Thomas had not performed together anywhere at all in more than a decade, but I cajoled them on the phone, met that at La Guardia, took them to a Southern soul food lunch in Fort Greene, and their set was deeply emotional and incredibly funky. Solomon Burke lived up to the legend that he was, bringing his gigantic king’s throne on stage with him. Trumpet/composer great Roy Hargrove performed with his pioneering jazz fusion ensemble RH Factor. Dr. John came to us long before his run at the BAM Opera House, and the New Orleans JazzFest fans packed MetroTech. Angelique Kidjo brought her African-influenced pop and soul to us when she was just starting to be known. Little Anthony and the Imperials were second only to The Stylistics in the MetroTech audience singalong contest. Jimmy Cliff performed one of the most brilliant and emotional sets we’ve ever had. Maxi Priest—I’ll admit it—was more thrilling and drew a bigger more passionate crowd than I’d anticipated. Ruth Brown brought her 1950s R&B hits with songs from her Broadway smash “Black and Blue”. Fishbone’s appearance was as eccentric and fabulous as you’d expect. Both Henry Butler and Sheila E performed incredible sets in a steady rain to a sea of grooving umbrellas. The Ohio Players’ first appearance was one of their last with their original lead singer “Sugarfoot”. The ageless legend Bobby Rush performed his utterly salacious and hilarious shows for us twice. King Sunny Ade brought his Nigerian band of virtuosos and knocked out the place with his pioneering West African grooves. The Hallelujah Train was led by incredible drummer/composer Brian Blade featuring his legendary Louisiana preacher father with guests including producer Daniel Lanois on guitar. Tank and the Bangas were hot off their NPR Tiny Desk Contest win when they brought new hip-hop/R&B fusion sounds from New Orleans. Savion Glover sustained a virtuoso 90-minute set of tap accompanied by drummer Marcus Gilmore. Finally, Ashford and Simpson’s incredible deep set of thrilling hits inspired my then-two-year-old son Lieff to become a drummer—now he’s 14 and, having virtually grown up backstage at MetroTech, is a committed and talented jazz and R&B drummer soon to attend a major performing arts high school in New Orleans.

Can you tell us what to expect this year?
June 6: Nona Hendryx performs a special set joined by Living Colour guitar legend Vernon Reid and a thrilling, mostly female, deep funk and rock band.

June 13: Ghost-Note is a new funk/jazz fusions ensemble; an offshoot of the virtuosic cross-genre Brooklyn-based three-time Grammy winning Snarky Puppy.

June 20: Roy Ayers was already a legend in soul and R&B and jazz before he became one of the most sampled artists in hip-hop - opening an entirely new fan base.

June 27: Phony Ppl are the most fun and exciting new band I’ve seen in ages - selling out an extended run of engagements at the Blue Note with lines down the block. Conya Doss is also the kind of R&B artist with a passionate following we need to embrace.

July 11: Rahsaan Patterson is a great soul crooner who is simply long overdue to come to MetroTech.

July 18: Fantastic Negrito came to my attention a few years ago due to his original and dramatic updating of blues styles, and also because of his compelling personal story. The Brooklyn United Drumline is all Brooklyn middle and high school kids who present thrilling marching band traditions—of course they’ll be at MetroTech!

July 25: Cha Wa is the newest and among the best of the New Orleans brass bands, who uniquely also showcase the Mardi Gras Indian legacy in their live shows.

August 1: Ruthie Foster is simply one of the finest vocalists in the world, period. Her passionate original mix of folk, blues, gospel, and soul sets her apart.

August 8: Now That We’ve Found Love What Are We Gonna Do With It? The answer is easy: sing and groove along with bestselling reggae stars Third World!

August 15: Once in a rare while there is an artist who is too good for the marketplace, but whose fans know the score. Van Hunt is that guy—an utterly brilliant cat whose musical world lives somewhere between Prince and D’Angelo. &More, featuring Questlove’s sister Donn T, opens with their own utlra-cool Philly thing.

We’re SO looking forward to it. See you there!

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