Papa Mali

So an old man walks into a bar.

Well, an old man walks into the Melting Point, anyway. A nearly empty Melting Point. And this is not your typical old man. This one has long black hair, wears a black beret, all black clothing, long beaded necklaces and dark sunglasses indoors. He walks in from the door adjacent to the stage, the one marked, “Artists Only,” so it’s fair to assume he’s with the band. But one thing’s for certain —he’s not part of Cyril Neville and Tribe 13, because a Neville brother he ain’t. And since I understand opening act Papa Mali to be a strange looking older fellow with long hair and prone to similar aesthetics, I’m going to make the leap and say this fashion plate is him.

I’ll now shift into past tense to tell you the following: I was wrong in so many ways.

Papa Mali, the Louisiana-bred blues/jazz/funk/jam master, is actually the old man with the long gray hair and the dread locks and even worse fashion sense and an extra 100 pounds, as I guess all authentic Louisiana-bred blues/jazz/funk/jam masters are. Now, I’d never actually listened to Papa Mali before, but he came highly recommended, and so far he was meeting my expectations to a T. And then he stopped.

Maybe it was the mere 20 people who showed up to see him, maybe it was his huge frame dragging him down, but this was all about the blues and rarely about the funk, if you know what I mean. Not that Papa isn’t talented. He plays a mean slide guitar, and anyone who knows me knows I love slide guitar. But I felt more like I was watching a caricature of the fabulous Stevie Ray Vaughan rather than an individual, original musician. He just stood there the whole set, barely moving, voice lifeless, leaving myself and the other few people there unsure of how to react to someone who by all rights should be so good. (In his defense, he did say he’d canceled an Athens show the week prior due to illness.) 

His band was only marginally better. The organ player could have phoned in his performance, and the damn-near consistently dour look on his face didn’t help. (Perhaps the huge “DO NOT HUMP” sticker on the front of his, uh, organ is being taken too literally.) But I will say that, while Papa’s drummer was no second coming of anything, he looked like he was having a great time, and that made all the difference for me. There’s nothing worse than a musician who acts like he’d rather be anywhere but on stage, and this guy’s energy and maniacal giddiness almost made up for the lack of spirit in his cohorts. Almost. 

Sadly, the only part of the set I really enjoyed was the final tune. Papa and friends were assisted on bass guitar by none other than the aforementioned aging hipster in the beret, and I wonder why they didn’t introduce him sooner. You wanna talk about bringin’ the funk? Well, this cat did and then some. Let him dress like an acid-washed beatnik— with skills like that, he can do whatever he wants. But as I said, this was the final song of the set, and it wasn’t enough to make up for the bewilderingly unfunkdefied performance.

About five more people eventually trickled in for the headliner, Cyril Neville and Tribe 13. Yes, Cyril is one of those Nevilles, and much to my surprise, so is aforementioned hipster bass player. (Remember: assumptions=bad.) Not in the literal sense, of course, but this dude primarily serves as bassist for Tribe 13, and his presence at the beginning gave me a positive feeling about where this was going. So did the 61-year-old Cyril’s astonishingly pimped-out style of dress, which begged the question of whether he would deliver on what his goods seemed to promise. Seriously, if this man is going to dress like a cross between Spencer Tracy and Dave Chappelle, then I expect to at least want to shake my ass a little

I guess I should have known that, as a Neville, sassy, ass-shakin’, punk funk can’t help but be in Cyril’s blood. And from moment one Papa Mali was a distant memory as Cyril and his backup vocalist wife, bongo payer son, jaw-droppingly awesome guitarist, et al. plugged their way through soul, reggae, blues, funk, rock and what-you-got with an amount of passion that can only be mustered by someone who loves what they’re doing enough to do it in front of 20 people in a venue that could probably hold a few hundred. They even did a reggae-ish version of Janis Joplin’s “Piece Of  My Heart,” which wasn’t a stunner but nonetheless felt brave to me.

It wasn’t the best show I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen bluesier. I’ve seen funkier. But I did groove a little in my seat, and I guess that was sort of what I came to do.