Vienna’s New ‘Haus’ of Funk

Saxophonist Maceo Parker brings James Brown funk to Vienna’s Konzerthaus

Maceo Parker

Maceo Parker sings with his sax as well as his voice | Photo: Wolfgang Gonaus

Vienna’s Konzerthaus is not normally ranked high among the best venues for dancing of any kind, much less to funk music. So when I found out that Maceo Parker, former saxophonist with James Brown and the George Clinton outfit Parliament would be appearing at the opulent concert hall dedicated to the classics, I was skeptical. Would I even enjoy the show in a place like that?

We sat in discounted seats right next to the stage, as the musicians made their appearance. After an opening groove to whet the palette, Maceo Parker took to the stage with his saxophone.

“This funk is off the hook!” he shouted out. “Papa’s got a brand new bag!”

Funk ensued as the band reverberated to the signature James Brown style. Trapped in my seat, I found myself waving my hands to the beat, while my neighbors nodded in rhythm with happy smiles.  The tune showed no sign of ending and gradually crescendoed to the point where silence exploded, and band members stood frozen while the applause rushed over the stage.

Second tune, similar reaction, and even Parker himself remarked: “I seen a lot of signs that say jazz, and I wonder if you’re in the right place.” The crowd of 1,840 laughed in reply. Referring to his concert being billed as jazz, he responded, “I appreciate you coming out and everything but, (jazz) is not what we do! You see we do 2% jazz, and 98% funk!”

Once that message was delivered, folks loosened up to the tune, “Make It Funky.” Heads nodded to and fro and smiles spread across the hall, as people swayed within the confines of the red velvet chairs and arm rests.

After just over a half-hour and only three songs, the band slowed the pace of the show with an instrumental jazz ballad to rest everyone’s bones. “I guess that’s the 2%!” Parker quipped.

Back to the funk. A sliding trombone solo, then staccato scaling solos from the trumpeter, at times wailing into the upper echelons of the musical register, then plummeting into the driving motif blown by the trio of winds. The thumping bass lines offered by long-time Parliament/Funkadelic member Rodney Skeet Curtis penetrate my bones. By now I was having real trouble staying in my seat, and I notice one couple standing in the middle of the parterre, dancing in the shadows, oblivious to those around them.

Parker opened the sixth tune, “Run Joe,” with a solo run on the sax. After yet another dose of funk, Maceo recalled a local musical influence. “Speaking of Joe, that reminds me of a man who wrote for Cannonball Adderley .. give it up  for Joe Zawinul!” The crowd echoed his request to clap for the Austrian pianist and jazz composer, who passed away in 2007.

Parker’s homage to his influences shifted now from sax to song. The band exited, leaving the keyboardist and Parker alone on the stage. Donning black shades, he stepped up to the mic, leaned slightly to the side and belted out Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me,” in a deep pitched, soulful rendition that stunned the crowd. He modified his voice so well to the soul master that it was almost Ray himself, swaggering around like an old man living the blues.

The funk erupted once again as the eighth song broke out. The couple who were still dancing in the parterre then came down the aisle to the stage side, and there they stayed, alone, gesturing and weaving to the tune. A few seconds later, another couple joined them. At that point my friend and I stood up to join the improvised dance floor. More and more came, resigned that they could no longer sit still. Soon, there were some thirty-five dancers assembled along the aisle, arousing expressions of delight from the band members. The ushers, happily, decided to leave well enough alone.

Over the course of the next three tunes, folks gathered in the other aisle to dance, and people stood up and swayed in the balcony seats. “I didn’t think we was going to have as good a time as we are having,” Parker crowed. “We’re gonna have a funky good time!”

In the penultimate tune “Shake Everything You Got,” the musicians strutted in sync during a blistering guitar solo from Bruno Speight, bursting out of his shell and then descending into a drum solo by Jamal Thomas. Then returning for the encore, Maceo had a final message to convey about the whole evening:

“They tell us about the itinerary, but they don’t tell us about the venue,” Parker confessed. “My life has been really great thanks to … (pointing to the audience) and… (pointing to the band).” That said, he grunted out, “Pass the peas, pass the peas!” announcing the final groove of the evening. This time, like a magician summoning a spell, he swooped his hand in front of him and declared:

“I want everyone to stand!”

Like the waters of the Red Sea, the entire parterre rose to the occasion, folks old and young finally released from the fetters of their armchairs. Looking across the crowd, smiles reigned supreme, hips swayed and arms shook, as shimmers of light glistened from the two golden and crystal chandeliers looking down from the opulent ceiling. Strangers exchanged glances of sheer glee, as if to say, “are you enjoying this as much as I am?”

Those souls who left the Konzerthaus that evening had witnessed a transformation of the storied concert hall. A new legacy: The Konzerthaus was now a home of the funk!

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