Bentley's Bandstand: The City Champs, The Set-Up

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BY BILL BENTLEY

The City Champs, The Set-Up. Electraphonic Records

Hammond organs are a most interesting instrument. For some, they are the ultimate in creating bodacious sounds. They can almost be cosmic in the notes that pour from those furniture-like mountains of wood. And no matter how much modern technology allows chopped-down synthesizers to approximate the sound of a true Hammond, substitutes need not apply. You need the full-on dealio, complete with Leslie speaker attached to supply the correct underwater ethos.

Going back to when these organs first started getting noticed in popular music, small religions have sprung up around their masters. Think Booker T. with his MGs, Art Neville in the Meters, Brian Auger with the Trinity, not to mention boy wonder Stevie Winwood when he was with the Spencer David Group, and initially grabbed our ear lobes on those throbbing first hits “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man.” That was Hammonditis at its most heavy. Needless to say, over on the jazz side, players had been busy making organ trios serious objects of affection for a long, long time. Jimmy Smith even had pop hits on songs like “Got My Mojo Working” and “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Still, there are those who will run from the room at the mere mention of the word. There is something in their DNA which just doesn’t allow them to melt with the rich notes that pour forth from Hammond organs. Different pokes for different folks. All of which is a long way of leading up to Memphis’ City Champs, one of the leading lights in modern organ trios. Al Gamble takes the instrument into exciting worlds, mixing the double-keyboard for unrelenting head-on soulathons. He is a guru, someone who’s absorbed the past and is unafraid of walking into the future. With Joe Restivo’s guitar and George Sluppick on drums, the young musicians are walking tall in a tradition that suffers no fools, writing instant classics like “Drippy” and “Rigamarole.”

The twilight shimmer of heart-tugging greatness that runs all the way through The Set-Up shines a light of feeling and funk worthy of those who inspired this group. Add on the Bo-Keys’ horn section, Felix Hernandez’s congas, co-producer Scott Bomar’s bass and, yes, original Motown session man Jack Ashford on tambourine, and you have an album that is a guaranteed party-starter. Amateurs will be instigated to try and play along, and dancers driven to bold new moves. And just to give a sideways nod to modernity, the Champs even cover “Theme from Mad Men (A Beautiful Mine),” showing they know where the bodies are buried. Don Draper never had so much fun.

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