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Duke Performances, the outstanding Duke University arts presenter based in Durham, North Carolina, decided to move out its home base and take a chance on co-sponsoring a February concert featuring vocalist Gregory Porter in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is located some 30 miles away. It would be the first time that Duke Performances, which has been presenting excellent events for decades, would work with the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts Center (now the Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts) in the capital city. The partnership turned out to be a sold-out smashing success!
The very popular, much-in-demand Porter's happy, jovial fans started coming in that Friday night at least an hour before the scheduled 8:00 pm concert. Most of them seemed to be thoroughly convinced that this concert would be the event of the season. Some dressed in their Sunday best, some dressed like they were ready to party. They were all dressed to impress.
"We work a lot, at least 200 dates a year, from here to Europe, even Japan. Almost all the major festivals. They love him all over the world!" said Raleigh native and pianist Chip Crawford, backstage a few minutes before Porter went on. Crawford was smiling and said that he was happy to be back home.
Crawford is Porter's powerful pianist and has been in Porter's backup band from the very beginning after having met at a jam session years ago at the now-defunct St. Nick's Pub in Harlem shortly after Crawford moved to New York.
I asked Crawford about how he came to know Porter:
"St. Nick's was neighborhood bar where anybody could get on the bandstand and perform. Gregory had just moved to the city, too. He always enjoyed my playing. I liked his singing. We both enjoyed being at St. Nick's. A lot of people did, especially the musicians because it was one of the few places in the city where they got a chance to do their thing. There are some musicians who got gigs and launched their careers after some folks like record executives and booking agents in the audience heard them. Gregory was one of them. It was where he got discovered. I have been blessed because most the cats in this band are the same ones, except the bass player, the saxophonist and the organist, who backed him up at St. Nick's Pub. The drummer, Emmanuel Harrold and me are the original backup band who backed him up at the jam sessions at St. Nick's. We were on tour once and Herbie Hancock came backstage and told us that we sounded good. He [Hancock] said don't change the personnel because we had something special. His told that we were a tight unit. He [Hancock] said to leave it like it is. So, we have so far. I feel blessed and honored that Gregory has taken me with him all over the world. It's been quite a journey!"
"We love you, Gregory!" shouted a young smartly clothed caramel-colored lady with an Afro as Porter approached the microphone. Throughout the evening those four words would be heard at least ten times by at least ten different people. It was clearly a lovefest for the booming baritone, who is, without question, one of the hottest acts on the jazz scene today. The evening turned into part Porter lovefest and part "Praise the Lord!" event.
Both of Porter's late parents were California preachers. His originals reflected that. His first selection was called "Revival." Most of the crowd clapped and sang the song with him. They seemed to know every word. The next tune, "On My Way to Harlem" was one that he led off by him describing his times at St. Nick's Pub and how that when he first arrived in Harlem years ago, he was surprised that Harlem was not the Harlem of old when Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and other notables lived there.
After those two selections, Porter sang some of his greatest hits including "Take Me to The Alley," "Everything You Touch is Gold," "Hey Laura," and "If Love is Overrated." Porter even sang some tunes that weren't his originals, covering songs like "Keep Your Head to The Sky" and "My Girl" made famous by Earth, Wind and Fire and the Temptations respectively. The cheering crowd loved it, singing along with him. But it was the last tune, his original "No Love Dying Here," that was clearly the highlight of the night.
When he started singing "No Love Dying Here," most of the audience stood up out of their seats. The smiling Porter sang one verse, pointed the microphone toward them and they sang back. At that point the hot, tight band was sounding super, especially when the members were soloing. The saxophonist Tivon Pennicott was exceptional with a sound that reminded some of Sonny Rollins' big, beautiful tone. Drummer Harrold's solo was as hot as it gets. And as all expected, pianist Crawford didn't disappoint his hometown crowd. Crawford's playing on the last selection was tasteful, unique, and helped Porter keep the level of intensity high. After an encore the show was over. The crowd was still standing and clapping when Porter and the band walked off the stage.
All and all, it was a good night for everybody – for vocalist Gregory Porter, for his well-oiled, well-traveled first-rate band, for his fans, for The Duke Energy Performing Center, and for Duke Performances. Smiles galore! Everybody had a good time. What more could you ask for?