A man with a goatee beard and earrings gazes thoughtfully; in the foreground is a microphone
Bobby Sparks II on stage at Ronnie Scott’s © Allan Titmuss

The blacked-out stage and face-covered vocalist standing centre stage exuded a mysterious vibe. And when the crunchy Fender Rhodes of American keyboard player Bobby Sparks II stabbed into deep-toned slabs of Funkadelic-style bass, it seemed the unease suggested by the evening’s billing as “Paranoia — a Funk Opera” would be borne out.

But Sparks’s latest album, Paranoia, unfolds like an extended funky jam, and that is precisely what was presented here. Songs from that guest-laden release were in the mix, classic covers were radically reconstructed and invitees lined up to perform. Sparks, though, was the focus, conjuring a panoply of grooves from his arsenal of keyboards, and suavely orchestrating from within.

The Texan takes the rhythmic mechanics of the Parliament/Funkadelic aesthetic, adds a hefty portion of jazz and takes them up a notch — no mean feat for a three-piece rhythm section and a single lead horn. Jay McK’s bone-shaking bass guitar underpinned it all, fizzing and popping and leaving room for drummer Brannen Temple’s neat fills. Sparks likes the warmth of old-school keyboards and synths and he led from his Fender Rhodes. But he has doctored the classic keyboard to bend, slur and whine — an unusual and original effect.

Groove established, the evening’s first song was a cover, Sam Cook’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, each line stretched over the band’s grainy funk pulse. James Robinson — the vocalist with his face obscured — delivered the lines with a high, soulful tenor, casually dropped in a falsetto, and made the song his own. Whitney Russell took a turn on brash-toned trumpet, Sparks followed on organ, then blisters of white-knuckle electronica cued the heavy funk of “Stono River” from Sparks’s Schizophrenia: The Yang Project album; Russell’s reprise of the Cook cover was spine-tingling and brief.

The band were then joined by a string of American guests who happened to be passing through London. Singer/songwriter Sebastian Kole, currently signed to Motown, linked “Stand By Me” with “Superstition” and transformed both into stunning gospel funk. Vocalist Loria gave a shy R&B rendition of “Forever Mine”, from Sparks’s current release. And Philip Lassiter, trumpeter and horn arranger for Prince’s New Power Generation band, led a pulsating cover of the late Roy Hargrove’s neo-soul classic “Hard Groove”.

Lassiter, who was playing Ronnie Scott’s the following night, also appeared on Sparks’s current album — snatches of “Horny Dreams” alongside “Dmsr” featured here — and his Harmon-muted trumpet enhanced a gorgeously funky remake of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood”.

As guests came and went, the funk powered on, handcrafted by Sparks into an original form. “Oops Upside Your Head” and “We Got the Funk” had the audience on their feet, soloists raised the roof and the encore was guaranteed. “Are you afraid to take the mask off?” sang vocalist Robinson over sparsely brushed torch-song support. Finally, off it came. The spine-tingling ballad led to calls for more, but the next band show was already overdue.



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