Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Apollo Theater Amateur Night

As appear's in today's issue of the New School Free Press

I came to the Apollo Theater expecting to be the only white person in attendance. After all, that's what movies like The Jacksons: An American Dream and The Buddy Holly Story have led me to believe. But I left with the image of a 70-year-old Jewish grandma doing the Rockaway to Fat Joe's "Lean Back."

The "World-Famous" Apollo Theater, established in 1934, has had some fantastic names grace its stage: Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Billie Holiday, James Brown—with many of those names performing at Amateur Night, held every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. But seventy-four years later, Amateur Night is only a smudge of what it used to be.

Amateur Night works as such: if the audience likes you, you get to stay on the stage and finish your song, comedy skit, violin solo, whatever the participant thinks the audience will like; but if the audience doesn't like you, you're booed off the stage and escorted by the Sand Man, an "executioner" who dances and entertains the crowd, behind the curtains never to be seen again.

The night's MC, Drew Frazier, is like The Office's Michael Scott's impression of Chris Rock: loud and not funny. He led the audience through about twenty amateurs hoping to make it big, all the while telling the audience terrible, stereotypical jokes (Ever hear the one about black people not liking cold weather? Yeah—and it's still not funny). The amateurs ranged from American Idol-esque to a crew of steppers to a girl playing violin to Beyonce's "Crazy in Love."

The only truly memorable highlight was the house band, Ray Chew and the Crew. Sounding like a mix between Dave Matthews Band and Booker T. & the MGs, they provided some sorely needed soul to otherwise crappy performances.

The night I went, the Sand Man came out twice, and that was the best part of the show: seeing terrible singers getting booed off stage and just being generally humiliated. At one point, Mr. Man came out dressed as Michael Jackson, and made some easy jokes about being a pedophile. Forty years before this sad event, the Jackson Five tore up this very stage.

That's the main problem with the Apollo: there's an attempt to stay with the past, but that's only by name dropping people like Otis and Ella, not actually providing the kind of setting these artists would want to thrive in. At one point, a guy dressed as Ronald McDonald came out and told the crowd how great the Apollo is.

And up in Music Heaven, James Brown did not feel good.

(It goes without saying, but the picture being used was not taken by me)

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