photos: Kory Thibeault
“They say timing is everything; they weren’t f*cking around.” Prophetic words from Chicago-based keyboardist/vocalist Neal Francis, who opened his sold-out show at The Independent in San Francisco with “Alameda Apartments”, the first song on his fantastic sophomore LP In Plain Sight, released last fall. Francis’s white-hot tour behind the album rolled into the Bay on Saturday, May 28th, rebooked after January’s engagement was postponed amid a resurgence in Omicron.
In the interim few months, Francis’s star has only continued to ascend and burn brighter, tearing up venues across the country in 2022. Neal’s been buzzin’ all over the place; from Windy City hometown throwdowns, sitting in with Wilco in Mexico, to big stages at spring festivals, heavy-hitter superjams during Jazz Fest in New Orleans, and a dynamite new video for In Plain Sight’s latest single, “Prometheus”.
Francis landed high-profile direct support bookings on national tours this summer, beginning with Amos Lee this week. Neal will chase that jaunt with an extended run opening for Marcus King in the fall.
But on a Saturday night in the city by the Bay, it was all eyes and ears on Mr. Neal Francis for a bombastic one hundred-minute tour de force. This would be the last headlining date on his club tour before taking flight with Lee at the top of June.
New York City singer/songwriter Kendra Morris, Francis’s Karma Chief labelmate, was also on her last night of touring for a time. The veteran vocalist started things off at the Indy while many folks were still filing in to the venue.
Morris offered a delightful set, with earthy vibes and a big city steelo, most definitely a definitive juxtaposition. Comfortably barefoot and prancing around the stage littered with instruments, Morris led her tight band through a collection of tracks mostly culled from her latest LP Nine Lives.
Kendra Morris reached way back for opener “Concrete Waves”, a track from her Wax Poetics days a decade ago that uses skateboarding as a metaphor for life. She also performed “Keep Walking”, “This is Life”, “Who We Are” and the title track to Nine Lives. Morris went old school for the set finale “Banshee”, the title track to her 2012 album.
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Kendra has been goin’ at it for a good while now, and maybe Nine Lives is the record that breaks her through to the big time. The evening’s headliner, Neal Francis, is riding a rocketship in that direction, evidenced by the throaty throngs and googly-eyed gals that turned out in droves for his blistering set.
Francis channels an inspired sound steeped in New Orleans groove and Chicago blues, influenced by everyone from Allen Toussaint to Billy Joel, Leon Russell to Dr. John, Traffic to Elton John, Curtis Mayfield to JJ Cale. Francis’ whole vibe evokes a bygone era, a polyester-clad musical heyday, yet simultaneously he’s steadily developing his own thang, one step, one show, and one day at a time.
Flanked by Kellen Boersma on guitar, and longtime co-horts Mike Starr on bass, and Collin O’Brien on drums, Francis dove feet first into his burgeoning catalog of bangers. After “Alameda Apartments” set the tone, Francis dropped the rollicking piano-groove “Problems” in the two-slot, much to the delight of the dancers in the audience.
Because they’ve been touring so hard of late, Neal’s band effortlessly locked into the music and each other. The way they used dynamics and communication to their advantage was evident early and often.
Francis’ 2019 debut album Changes put him on the map, thanks to the behemoth title track that remains maybe his finest creation—a deep meditation on addiction, sobriety, and mortality steeped in soulful funkiness. Always a stirring number that hits you in the feels, Neal leaned into his patented whammy-clavinet with authority, producing some searing tones that matched the heavy subject matter.
In addition to a Hammond A100 organ, Neal has a “modded” Hohner D6 Clavinet with a whammy bar attached on top of it. “It sounds like strings on a guitar, except with keys and a whammy bar,” is how he once explained it to me. Whatever he’s got goin’ on there, it allows him to really dig in and wail like a true Chicago bluesman torking on a ten strip of orange sunshine.
The vibrant jams were voluminous and scorching throughout Francis’s assertive performance. Kendra Morris returned for a titanic run through the blue-eyed soul of “Can’t Stop the Rain”, with an undeniable hook co-written by The Revivalists’ David Shaw. It nearly brought the house down in flames. A sizable chunk of the crowd was belting out the chorus with triumphant abandon.
Neal Francis – “Can’t Stop the Rain”
The sprawling “Prometheus”, a track that invokes the plight of a titan of Greek mythology, was the concert’s centerpiece. Prometheus was relegated to a life of endless torture as penance for stealing fire from Mount Olympus. In the metaphorical purge, Neal is brutally honest about his hard living days and nights. In the tailwind of the trail of fire he left in his wake, he asks for mercy while mining his own fearless moral inventory into song.
Onstage at the Indy, “Prometheus” incorporated what can be described as a “type II” jam, an improvisational segment that departed any structure of the song and blasted off into the galaxies, all gas no breaks. Phish phans have been quickly getting hip to the magic of Neal Francis, and a few of them dotted the audience at this particular show. Yet the layered textures and adventurous sonics leaned more Floydian then anything one might discover in the Green Mountain state.
Starr and O’Brien work—and rock—pretty damn hard. They do it rather tastefully, and with panache. The duo has been collaborating with Neal for years, each a part of his creative process, writing and recording. The bassist and drummer make for a thorough rhythm section, pushing and pulling the greasy grooves all night long, and giving impressive guitarist Boersma and ever-brilliant Francis more than enough runway to tell a few stories.
The swaggering “Very Fine” continued that fatback ’70s funk rock vibe, complete with boom-bap breakbeats and the entire room hootin’ along with the bridge. Neal took off on his piano and Boersma met him along the way as the two dueled and danced into a deep, methodical dalliance. “Sentimental Garbage” was another barnburner bop, with more sweltering piano action.
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By this point in his performance, Francis had every last one of us eating out of the palm of his hand—a tall cool one levitating onstage in his element, a vulnerable soul relating tales of damaged lovers, broken relationships, and spiritual reckonings. Neal Francis can connect with just about anybody, plus his music is quite nice to move to.
Such is the case with “BNYLV”, a buoyant, sexy, Steely Dan-like bounce from In Plain Sight. On this night, it arrived on the heels of a diabolical, lysergic gallop through Funkadelic’s “Alice in My Fantasies” that stretched our frontal lobes to the limit. “BNYLV” is feel-good music, an oxytocin dart to the jugular. This aphrodisiac wields a purposeful, downright intoxicating outro jam. While his band held down the torrid groove with discipline, Neal tickled the ivories with all the mojo he could muster, and the dancefloor erupted for about five full minutes.
For a grand finale, Francis and company welcomed back Kendra Morris for a pair of numbers, “Rain” and the disco-funk of “She’s a Winner”. Morris demonstrated fantastic chemistry with Francis as the two vibed on each other while the fellas pumped the grooves behind them.
Neal and his band briefly left the stage, but the masses demanded one more song. Francis obliged, returning to deliver a phenomenal rendition of the Plastic Ono Band’s “Cold Turkey”, certainly a cover that hits close to home for the teetotaling Francis, and likely a few folks in the audience too. Francis uncorked some punked-up energy to bring it on home, whipping the crowd into a frenzy one more time before sending us out into the San Francisco night.
Setlist: Kendra Morris | The Independent | San Francisco, CA | 5/28/22
Set: Concrete Waves, Interlude > Keep Walking, Twist & Burn, Someone Else, Nine Lives, This Life, Who We Are, Banshee
Setlist: Neal Francis | The Independent | San Francisco, CA | 5/28/22
Set: Alameda Apartments, Problems, How Have I Lived, Changes, You’ve Got to Change, Prometheus, Last Train, Sentimental Garbage, Very Fine, Alice in My Fantasies (Funkadelic), BNYLV, Rain, She’s a Winner
Encore: Cold Turkey (Plastic Ono Band)