Words by Joey Zoldan | Photo by Jeremy Gordon
Omaha Diner, the burgeoning all-hits jazz funk super group of Steve Bernstein, Charlie Hunter, Skerik and Bobby Previte, hit Brooklyn Bowl last Thursday for a captivating performance. Top 40 is ostensibly safe and predictable, yet that format can yield intriguing instrumental developments when distilled by a quartet whose members are known for pushing boundaries. When Billboard hits from the past half century are mined for material, one might expect a pattern of pop formula to emerge. But popular tastes are fickle and both forgotten classics and recent anthems proved fertile for reinvention and reassessment.
The show opened with an instrumental take on Terrence Trent D’arby’s late ‘80s R&B classic “Wishing Well” setting the tone for a nightlong audience guessing game. Snippets of lyrics occasionally emerged, but for the majority of the set, familiar melodies served as clues to songs lodged deep in the public pop conscience. Bernstein, the Mel Brooks of jazz (Skerik’s innovation), whose banter is on par with his considerable trumpet skills, was quick to note that the set list was crowd sourced to a degree (also Skerik’s innovation). Fan-sponsored choices seemingly tended closer to recognition than band picks.
After a swinging rendition of “The Reflex,” Bernstein deadpanned that he never expected to be playing Duran Duran in Brooklyn at this stage of his career. More tunes with theatrical rock and roll DNA followed in suit, with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Guns ‘n’ Roses “Sweet Child of Mine” each getting the lounge funk treatment, sandwiched around the already funky “War.” Charlie Hunter on his 7-string guitar bass hybrid was the evening’s MVP, maintaining a snappy plodding bass undertone and shredding clean melodic dulcet solos, a feat that loses no magic on repeated viewings.
Skerik and Bernstein provided both pitch perfect brass vocal mimicry and comedic running commentary. Bobby Previte provided a workaday backbeat with complex rhythmic asides. The band was at its best when the composed sections were completed and free reign through the tunes’ underlying structure was possible. Impressively, the collective repeated only two tunes from their last NYC performance a few months ago, one of which was the newly chic Hall & Oates tune “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” As the group continues to expand and hone its songbook, their performances should take on an even more cohesive nature.
In a nod to the ephemeral generational pop value system, Bernstein conveyed his daughter’s bemused faux embarrassment at his repeated playing of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” for educational purposes. More hip hop followed the smooth throwback pop reggae of Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” and a relatively staid take on the wistful R&B tune “Our Day Will Come.” The band took great ironic glee in performing version of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ YouTube-enabled chart topper “Thrift Shop” that hewed close to the bombast of the original, down to the expletive-enhanced refrain.
After an encore of a familiar and timeless tune – The O’Jays’ “Love Train” played with reverence and panache, the band ceded the floor to another dedicated analyst of popular music, ?uestlove, for his traditional Thursday night DJ set filled with the original versions of numerous funk, soul and hip hop classics.
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