As a lifelong music fan there’s always been something so cool to me about the lead piano or keyboardist. Like there’s a whole other swagger that comes along with slapping the keys and commanding a stage.
From Dr. John, Stevie Wonder, Warren Zevon, to even Donald Faggan of Steely Dan, there’s something that’s a bit more cocky about playing the keys as the frontman.
Chicago’s Neal Francis has all that swagger and more. From his funk-driven tunes, that verge in the lanes of Yacht, Psychedelic, and all 70’s rock, to his funny quips on stage, acting as if he doesn’t care if he’s playing to a full house or an empty room.
Francis brought his experiential funk-influenced sounds to the Woodward Theater in OTR Thursday evening.
Before he took the stage, however, Francis tapped two great local acts to open the evening. Cincinnati’s Synth-pop duo Moonbeau and Dayton’s 60’s Folk/Country Rock sounding act M Ross Perkins.
Moonbeau has been around in the Cincinnati music community for several years now. Their frontman Christian Gough even longer as he is also a member of the Cincy Indie Rock act The Yugos. Now on the heels of their newest single “Feels” Gough and his new wife and collaborator Callie, who shares vocals and plays synth in the group, brought their bubbly ‘80s rooted synth-pop to the Woodward. This time it felt with a whole new energy.
Their music is akin to acts like The 1975, CHVRCHES, and even Cincinnati’s own Walk The Moon. However, there is a bit more brevity and jovial spirit with the Goughs. They seem to bare their own love on their new music and aspire to reach for those John Hughes ‘80s hopeless romantic moments at all times. They’re a band you want to listen to in venues like the Woodward. Like in a dance party in a gymnasium where you lock eyes with that person you love from across the room and then dance the night away.
The band to follow them was a bit of a 180 degree turn, but in the best way, as it primed the audience for the genre blending that Francis would bring out last. Dayton’s M Ross Perkins too felt like you could be at a school dance but instead of in the ‘80s, they come from the sounds of the ‘60s and the ‘70s.
Their music has this real sway to it that you find in music like the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and even Roy Orbison. I mean at no point during this evening did fans not have an excuse to not dance. Taking from the simple song structure of artists like the Byrds and ‘60s pop acts and blending it with a bit of ‘70s rock like Neil Young, you got this American Laurel Canyon sounding Rock. Perkins’ music although sounds like a pretty big task to reach for however, they are one of the more tastefully done nostalgia influenced acts I’ve heard in some time. The lyrics are contemporary while sounding like something off of Rubber Soul or Buffalo Springfield Again.
If any of that music sounds interesting to you, I recommend you run out to Shake It and grab their record E Pluribus M Ross. I will be going there, as soon as I hit send on this article to pick it up.
Finally, it was time for Francis and his band to take the stage. As they took the stage there was no pomp and circumstance. Just Francis and his band ready to blow the roof off of Woodward with their blend of Creole and L.A. ‘60/’70s funk rock.
Francis took the stage as said before with the swagger of someone playing to an arena of people, instead of the modest crowd at Woodward on Thursday. Dawning a very ‘70s shag hairstyle, what seemed to be a tailored pinstripe suit with an ascot. Do you realize how many people can actually pull off an ascot in 2023? Very few. You have to have confidence in everything you do.
Francis approached his Hohner Keyboard, which looked to be on top of a Hammond Organ, and began to almost slap the thing. Then pulling on what seemed to be a whammy bar for his keyboard creating a guitar-like effect. I have been listening to Francis for several years now, but this was my first time getting to see him live and I truly underestimated how proficient of a musician he was and how many sounds one man could get from several pianos. At times Francis served as the backing bass player, the lead guitarist, the horns section, the organ player, and of course the piano player. That alone is worth seeing Francis, that's before you talk about the rest of the band.
Francis was backed by one of the more powerful rhythm sections I’ve seen at Woodward, the bass player seemed to have an engine that simply never stopped, always keeping the groove going. The drummer kept the tempo of the band, even in their more experimental or quieter moments constantly going, and their guitar player was simply phenomenal. For me I really love a guitar player who can hang back for an entire song then for 30 seconds blow your mind with his improvisational skills and then right back to continuing a funk rhythm, just chucking along.
The show started off with a personal favorite of my mine off their 2019 record, Changes, “She’s a Winner.” A funk forward tune that’s intro is reminiscent of Dr. John’s ‘70s run or even Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. However, the chorus is more rooted in the ‘70s rock anthems from artists like Grand Funk Railroad.
That’s the true juxtaposition between Francis’ music, a blend of honoring deep cuts of funk classics like the Isley Brothers and mixing in the more pop-sensible rock of artists like Steve Miller, who could mix in the the more spacey elements of his music and wrap it in a nice accessible package.
Francis would run through a slew of his catalog from songs like “Don’t Want You To Know,” off his latest release Sentimental Garbage, an EP that features an incredible cover of Shuggie Otis’ 1971 song “Strawberry Letter 23.” Something I would’ve loved to have heard but nonetheless, fans were delighted with plenty of Francis’ best.
Francis also broke out standards like “Changes, Pts. 1 & 2,” a nearly seven-minute track that served, as many of his songs did, as a jam or experimentation vehicle. A personal favorite came during their performance of “Very Fine - Pts. 1 & 2,” as the tune blasts you with a hammering walk down that meets with the band giving a tribal “Huh!” to begin the song. Reminiscent of L.A. funk legends War’s “Cisco Kid,” and Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.”
There are also some deep-rooted Southern Rock elements to Francis’ music, like on 2021’s In Plain Sight, “Can’t Stop The Rain,” an Allman Brothers-esc that leans on Francis’ ability to honor the past and continue the music of that era.
Francis also used Thursday night to debut four or five new tunes that showed him and his band maybe looking to artists like Steve Miller more. As they were spending a lot of time in these more spacey and atmospheric instrumental jams that never got too far out of reach to qualify them as a jam band but did give nods to that post Psychedelic era in the ‘70s where artists realized they could still structure well-crafted rock songs around these more complex instrumental parts.
As the evening came to an end I was left in awe of Francis’ undeniable cool and his band's proficiency. I was hooked from the start and could’ve heard another hour of that music. As Francis continues to grow you can tell he will continue to pull from elements of classic music and doesn’t simply rest on a shtick. I would love to see what a band like his sounds like at a venue like The Andrew J. Brady now as their music is big enough to fill venues like that.
Neal Francis is on tour currently and you can listen to his music wherever you stream music, however, this is an artist I would recommend getting his record. It’s perfect for any party situation and could be a pleasant surprise for friends who may not have heard of him yet. You’ll definitely be getting the, “What year was this record made?” questions.