It started with an e-mail, from a publicist at Columbia Records:
Hope you're well. Wanted to see if one of your writers/bloggers or one of your readers would be interested in attending the Raphael Saadiq concert at the JetBlue Terminal at JFK Airport. We will provide the round trip flight for the concert on April 8. Raph will be performing a short setlist to promote the May 10 release of Stone Rollin'... Let me know if you're interested in heading east for this show. I guarantee it'll be great!
This was my first glimpse of a post-collapse-of-the-record-industry press junket. Once upon a time, such junkets were semiregular occurrences, designed to expose professional arts writers to ink-worthy art. In 2011, they're practically extinct, thanks to decimated record sales, rising travel costs, and financially unstable everything. But here was Columbia Records, in cooperation with JetBlue, offering to fly literally anyone (be they writer, blogger, or reader) to New York City, with the only requirement being attendance at a 30-minute concert at the airport and the primary reward being a free round-trip flight with a name-your-own date of return. As a writer, blogger, and reader with an appreciation of Raphael Saadiq and a bunch of friends in NYC, I signed up.
For those who may not recognize the name, Raphael Saadiq is a pop music maker with 25 years of hits under his belt. After making a splash as a founding member of the R&B trio Tony! Toni! Toné!, Saadiq scored his first solo hit with 1995's "Ask of You" and officially ditched the group after their (gorgeous) 1996 record House of Music. Then came a decade spent primarily as a producer, during which Saadiq distinguished himself as the go-to guy for old-school soul, crafting records for D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Macy Gray, John Legend, Joss Stone, the Roots, and dozens of others. Three years ago, Saadiq reintroduced himself as a solo artist, with a personally unprecedented level of artistry. His 2008 album The Way I See It was an immaculately executed homage to Motown, packed with tracks that evoked Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye classics with an almost Girl Talk–level of specificity, while transcending mimicry thanks to Saadiq's deep and dazzling mastery of the idiom.
So at home was Saadiq in The Way I See It's nouveau Motown that the stylistic shift of his new Stone Rollin'—on which the would-be Smokey Robinson of 2008 is reborn as a would-be Sly and the Family Stone of 2011, complete with scratchy rhythm guitars, stomping beats, and a group vocal patter lifted wholesale from "Dance to the Music"—initially smells a little fishy. Does Saadiq indeed possess a direct line to the mystical heart of all black pop since 1963, or is he merely a prodigiously gifted poseur?
I figured this question would be partially answered by Saadiq's live show, scheduled for 5:00 p.m. on a Friday in JetBlue's tricked-out Terminal 5, which opened in 2008, cost $800 million to build, and features "55,000 square feet of high-quality shopping and food options." Staging a promotional event behind a post-9/11 TSA checkpoint is a strong choice, but wranglers from Superfly Marketing Group—the "multi-dimensional entertainment and marketing company with expertise in strategy development, creative programming, and lifestyle event production" that coproduced the concert—made it as smooth as possible, providing us with special wristbands and neutered boarding passes. (We still had to remove our belts and shoes.)
Once inside, we were treated to beer, wine, and sushi in a reception area to the left of the stage. A raised platform in the center of the terminal that is typically filled with tables and chairs was today outfitted with guitars, amps, and microphones. In place of a drum kit was a mic'd wooden box, to be straddled and thumped by the drummer (and keep the proceedings from being oppressively loud). As showtime approached, we were corralled in front of the stage, upon which soon appeared Saadiq with a gold Stratocaster and five-piece band. After a quick shout-out to JetBlue, Saadiq and company launched into their set—a tight, seven-song, old-school soul revue that sounded terrific from beginning to end. All selections came from the new record, which lost its slightly plastic sheen when played live. Whether he's a soul-music Yoda or a genius poseur, Saadiq is a world-class talent, with a love for his influences that cannot be faked. Highlights of the set: "Good Man," which showcased the adorable and highly animated backup singer Erika Jerry (recently seen in the Broadway revival of Hair), and "Radio," whose lyrics obliquely reference Saadiq's guiding stars. (Is the line "She knows I like it like that" or "She knows 'I Like It Like That'"? I like to think both, as an interest in preferred love techniques and knowledge of the Smokey Robinson songbook are musts in a lover.)
By the time the band locked into the early–James Brown–ish rush of "Stone Rollin'," the crowd had grown to a couple hundred people, from spazzy little dancing kids to near elderly ground-crew members with mile-wide smiles.
As a promotional event, the concert was a mixed bag: For those just landing in New York, it seemed like a Big Apple–y delight. For those rushing toward outgoing flights, it seemed like an odd and noisy hurdle. But musically it was a knockout, enough so that even the record company's screwup in booking my return flight couldn't diminish the glow. If Saadiq and company can get a freaking airport terminal rocking, Wednesday's Showbox at the Market show should be totally bonkers.