Monday, January 6, 2014

James Wesley Jackson “Live in Chicago”

( Comedy is a craft, so it should follow that the older you get the better you get, but starting in the 60s stand-up and rock ‘n’ roll sort of became intertwined in a way that challenged Borscht Belt traditions to the point that comedy audiences began to value youth and the idea of a comic getting staler the way a band loses vitality sort of took hold (would you rather have seen Cheech and Chong in 1978 or 2013?). This happened in part because comics still regularly opened for wild bands in the 70s, which is where Mr. Jackson comes in. His cerebral yet silly comedy impressed George Clinton and P-Funk, and the aspiring magician who only took up comedy when his magic tricks got stolen became the band’s opening act. His verbal gymnastics had some influence on the act (”free your mind and your ass will follow” was one of his lines), and he played a little harmonica with the band, but his role was mostly as a seventies-style opening act, trying to get stoned teens who were ready to rock to settle down and think -- a pretty challenging gig. His sole LP, 1972’s “Souled Out,” was recorded by the Chicago comic as the opener for Funkadelic’s (I believe) Chicago debut at Mandel Hall on the U of C campus in 1972. So, getting back to my opening thoughts, while that LP was very good, Jackson’s decades-later DVD follow-up is kind of great. Time has been kind to the self-described “Enviromedian.” This low key, no-frills DVD (two static cameras documenting a live set cable access-style) captures the sit down comic looking relaxed, handsome, and confident doing 45 minutes of clever, well-crafted one liners. The patina of danger as he deals with race, sex, and mortality is polished by his high-voltage, winning smile that in some ways tells the audience they are in on the big picture joke, but in other ways has a kind of trickster’s quality that hints that maybe only the sly comic knows the real deal. Several musical asides involving audience sing-alongs, chants, and calls and responses are original, weird, and oddly soothing. The audience here is completely responsive, though demographically homogenous (as in, kinda old…the head on camera shot does no favors to the male audience member’s 100% ratio of bald spots to heads), but I saw Jackson play to a young “hip” room recently with similar material and he killed that crowd as well. If you needed to compare him to someone, Jackson falls somewhere between the mellowed-out older Frankie Ajaye and a less spaced out Steven Wright. But after 40+ years Jackson has earned the right to be considered an original, and this is a fresh slice of funny funk.

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