When you bring up the name Gedeon Luke to the stranger on the street, the first thing usually discussed is his role as a semifinalist on American Idol. Luke, a Memphis, Tennessee, native, is well known for the style in which he made his own way to the mega-show destination, his longevity and eventual surprise show elimination. Even the usually uber-cynical Simon Cowell was rooting for him and was said to be floored at his dismissal from that 2006 season. But once you scrape away that common, everyday media image, you come to understand that there is much more to this determined, soul-fueled singer than meets the commercial eye.
Gedeon Luke And The People are out in support of their latest release, Live Free And Love. Comprised of 11 engaging tracks, Live Free And Love is the result of years spent honing craft in the Memphis music scene, plying the gospel-hued tone of inspirations such as Sly Stone, Sam Cooke and Al Green and utilizing a tough perseverance that has both protected and propelled Luke far into the public spotlight.
Luke and his bandmates are also no beginners when it comes to measuring said influence with carefully constructed presentation. Their knack for igniting addictive audience enthusiasm and church fervor buildup are becoming legendary, and Luke captures many emotional high points with this latest cornucopia of musical styles and timelines.
Live Free And Love dips, dives and plummets into all things funk as it launches with “Electric Playground.” Heavily steeped in the grandeur of 1980s acts such as Billy Ocean, Rick James and Prince, it’s hard to figure out where to look first on this catchy album starter. Basslines courtesy of Jack Daley (Joss Stone, Lenny Kravitz) roll and flow liquid gold under the steady stick work of drummer Joe Daley. Luke’s vocal moves slide from falsetto smooth verses to plaintive and passionate choral snarls. Horn work is way more pin pointedly melodic than the usual sax work (especially in NJ) and Steven Salcedo orchestrates call and response lines that remind me of Boney James (Morris Day And The Time).
“Standing On Top Of The World” brings me back to those gritty rock mavericks like Otis Redding and Shuggie Otis. Luke’s soul sentinel is let loose amid complex time signature changes and dynamic horn blasts that turn and burn down flights of melodic step to meet ground floor Telecaster muscle. This is a perfect example of Luke’s uncanny ability to unleash influential junkyard dogs and still present the sounds in his own unique and rock-and-soul voice.
“Lend Me Your Sunshine” is a funky trip down Prince Boulevard. Choruses explode with time-tested chord progressions and bright, blustery swipes of horn magic. Organs whirl in the back as Luke growls his ode to all things sunny before kicking into a Mayfield middle eight featuring some of the best vamping horn and guitar riffage this side of Tower Of Power. Gedeon proves that his simple, groove-infested style of writing will get the crowd on its feet every time. I liked the way the ending came back in reoccurring theme, heralding acoustic guitars that rise into the mix amongst an ethereal layering of “gospelized” vocal goodness that could go on for days.
“The Healing” is one of my picks for top song on the record. Pianos reverberate around bell-toned ninth chords and upstroked Steve Cropper sevenths that dissolve into Chicago-smooth horn arrangements. Luke once again shows his ability to change up for each piece, moving his vocal intuition into a full-bodied but cautious powerhouse along the lines of the great Al Green. Utilizing a skill that takes him from whispered, plaintive plea to the full-throttled choruses that dominate this classy number, Gedeon is pushed into the stratosphere by the miraculous vocal assist of Evvie McKinney (Gedeon’s little sister), Brielle Brown, Everett Bradley and Ayo Awosika.
Gedeon’s music comes across through a solid personality that he has maintained since childhood. Luke didn’t have it easy, and he battled through the early hurdles of poverty, gang pressure and drug abuse that affected his immediate surroundings. Gedeon looked to his music, his family and his faith as a trio of beaming beacons, shunning those mean streets and concentrating on making a real difference in his ongoing and universal destiny.
Luke’s faith-based philosophy shines bright on the band’s namesake tune, “Live Free And Love.” Luke and crew bounce along in major-keyed positivism as they bring us all together through the beauty of their musical message. Organ hits whirl and palpitate as crystal clean Telecaster upstrokes splash across powerhouse vocal fun. The outro is pure blues-inflected gospel as horns zoom to Funkadelia apogees and rhythmic bass and drum spiders crawl up and down the backbone of this frenzied and divine inspiration.
“The Hurting Kind” downshifts the band into an unhurried pace, building careful and luxurious layers of forlorn, summertime love. “The Hurting Kind” stirs the magical memories of ’70s icons The Brothers Johnson and The Isley Brothers, respectively. Expansive, rich production and intertwining layers of vocal gold place this traditional R&B smoker high on the shelf of visibility, and should garner Luke attention in various genres including soul, R&B and most adult contemporary positions on the charts.
“Echoes” is another fascinating look into the ’80s funk rock universe of Luke. The song features some of the disc’s best horn arrangements and showcases key players such as Michael Ghegan, Kiku Collins, Josh Brown, and Jean Caze (from Michael Buble’s band), as well as Steven Salcedo and Jonathan Powell, who are part of his present brass section.
A combination of the band Stories (“Brother Louie”) and some of Curtis Mayfield’s more introspective work, “Grey” features the smoky, percussive manipulations of Sarah Tomek. The easy, breezy combination of Tomek and Jack Daley is evident on several songs on the record, and this combination really elevates these songs into a believable context. Luke sells his message of lost love and the anxious hopes for wishes that will come true. The final ending touch of children singing the chorus, “Grey, grey go away,” is icing on the cake. Kudos goes out to Bobby Sparks and James Poyser (Poyser is in The Roots) for all their lush keyboard work.
As mentioned earlier, Live Free And Love contains a total of 11 songs, and while I haven’t had a chance to get to each and every one of them in this column, you’ll now have the opportunity to pick up the record and listen for yourself.
The CD is another fine example of an artist that has not only done his homework for his commercial guarantee of success, but also has come to terms with his life, living and breathing the genuine and believable work that is presented on Live Free And Love.
Gedeon Luke will be part of a very special show at The Watermark on the Asbury Park Boardwalk on April 30 along with Emily Grove, Boyd USA and Quincy Mumford. The series is called “Season Of The Song – An Evening Of Acoustics.” The show comes courtesy of Sammy Boyd Productions and doors are at 6 p.m., with music at 7:30 p.m.
For more information on Gedeon Luke And The People, check him out at gedeonluke.com, and for show information from Sammy Boyd Productions, head over to sbpasburypark.com.