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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Freedom Funk : A Liberated Rick James Isn't Singing Any Folsom Prison Blues

September 27, 1997|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Funk singer-songwriter Rick James has made more headlines than music in the 1990s. The troubled musician's problems with drugs and the law culminated three years ago with an assault conviction and a two-year sentence at Folsom State Prison.

Since his release about a year ago, the 47-year-old James has tried to resurrect his dormant career, via a new album, "Urban Rhapsody" (Private I/Mercury), and a 23-city U.S. tour that kicked off Thursday night at the Galaxy Concert Theatre.

But instead of providing a glimpse of where he's heading, this nostalgia-heavy show looked back. Not that reliving past glories is a completely bad idea.

Clearly in good spirits ("I'm happy to be alive--thanks for all your support"), a gracious James filled the room with a celebratory vibe. The funk master and his 12-member Stone City band laid down some fine, slinky grooves, particularly during such staples as "Dance Wit' Me," "Bustin' Out" and "Give It to Me Baby." And the pit swarmed with smiling, gyrating bodies--fans obviously pleased with the slew of recognizable hits.

Plus, ex-Mary Jane Girls vocalist JoJo McDuffie-Funderburg--one of three backing singers--added spice and energy while stepping into the lead role on two sultry numbers, "All Night Long" and "In My House."

Strangely, though, James failed not only to play his new material but also to mention that the new album is on its way, due in stores Oct. 14. It was a shame, too, because judging by an advance copy, the 14-track collection serves up a winning mix of soul, R&B and funk. Its most telling selection, "Somebody's Watching," presents an honest, introspective look at his incarceration and its aftermath.

That sense of urgency and renewal was missing in the two-hour-plus concert Thursday. Perhaps later in the tour, James will keep a recent promise to put his past behind him.

* Rick James appears Monday night at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. 9 p.m. (213) 848-5100. SOLD OUT.

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