There were no press conferences. No hot air balloons over Central Park. No riverboats down the Mississippi. And no odiously priced concert tickets. Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, the class act known as Labelle, talked amongst themselves, and after a 30 plus year separation, decided it was time to reform.
With the help of some heavyweights like the legendary Philly team of Gamble & Huff, Wyclef Jean, and Lenny Kravitz, Labelle is back. "Back To Now," in fact, is the name of the powerful new record on Verve Records. It is a record that not only finds the ladies, in Miss Hendryx's words, "reignited," but a record that manages to seamlessly pick up where the trio left off in 1977.
At no time does "Back To Now," exploit the fact the Labelle hasn't recorded in over 30 years. There are no hokey tributes or tired, potential cash-cow cover versions to draw attention. No "Lady Marmalade 2008" added as a bonus track. With more than half of the ten songs written or co-written by Nona Hendryx, "Back To Now" is as fresh as it is smart, sexy, and soulful. These ladies have known each other since 1962, and that love and friendship is evident on this exceptional new release.
Some credit must be given to producer Lenny Kravitz. Often the critics' punching bag for his consistent forays into psychedelic retro-soul, it is Kravitz' keen sense of music history and ear for detail that makes the opener, "Candlelight," the perfect aural red carpet to welcome you back into Labelle's world. A simple guitar and piano intro that wouldn't be out of place on the Stones' classic "Sticky Fingers," the Hendryx original bursts out into a slinky groove that would make Allen Toussaint, the man behind Labelle's classic "Nightbirds," a happy man. And really, with the powerhouse that is Patti Labelle leading the way, this my friends, is church.
Another Kravitz production is the song "System," something Labelle had been performing 30 years ago and was originally intended for their next studio record. As Hendryx puts it, "It means more today than it did even then." Patti adds, "It's about what's happening now." Kenny Gamble puts his magic touch on the ferocious reworking of 70's funk-rockers Mothers' Finest's "Truth Will Set You Free." And the surprise closer, the Cole Porter standard "Miss Otis Regrets," was actually recorded in 1970 with none other than Brit rockers Nicky Hopkins and Keith Moon on piano and drums respectively, when Who producer Kit Lambert took interest and set the trio on a national tour opening for Townshend's gang.
In recent years, we've seen big time/big money reunions from The Police, Cream, Genesis, and Black Sabbath. Labelle, singing about love, sex and change on an album of new material, may not get all the media bells and whistles as Sting and Phil Collins, but "Back To Now" deserves the attention. Not just for it's heart, but for it's courage. Patti, Nona, and Sarah have delivered an inspiring piece of work. Labelle had plenty to say 30 years ago and that feeling continues with "Back To Now," a new record that must be heard. Reunion notwithstanding, it is simply a strong collection of music. And that should be enough.