Monday, August 25, 2008

Monday Night in East Flatbush: Patti LaBelle at Wingate Field

(Photo courtesy of Dave Marez)

Although we missed all the other shows in the 26th summer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Concert Series, we were thrilled to be able to get to our old neighborhood of East Flatbush to attend tonight's evening with Patti LaBelle, a down-home diva if there ever was one. We left Dumbo Books HQ in Williamsburg after 6:30 p.m. but made excellent time via the G train to Bedford/Nostrand and then the B44 bus down Nostrand Avenue from Lafayette Avenue to Winthrop Street.

Walking along Winthrop along with the others heading for Wingate Field, taking handouts advertising everything from pack-and-shipping services and R&B concerts to the state senate candidacy of Simcha Felder, whose supporters were everywhere, we looked just south to the big tower of the Kings County Hospital complex.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Tobin)

Back in the early 1950s, when we were a little kid just the other side of it at our great-grandmother's house on East 42nd Street, that old tower and the tall smokestacks seemed so tall, the landmark of our neighborhood whether we were at Bubbe Ita's or a block away at our grandparents or three blocks from there at our other grandparents - or at our apartment on the other side of Utica Avenue by Snyder.

We could see Kings County Hospital when we rode the Church Avenue trolley with Bubbe Ita; she let us pull the cord to get off at our own block of East 54th Street.

We could see it coming out of Miss Pruzan's kindergarten class at P.S. 244; after buying a Justice League comic and drinking a malted at Mrs. Mogg's candy store on Church Avenue and East 43rd just across from Rubinson's pharmacy (still there!); leaving George and Anna's barber shop/beauty parlor, where Tony the barber one Saturday asked our eighth grade English teacher Mr. Berger in the next chair whether he thought The Catcher in the Rye was too dirty for kids to read; and we could see the tall hospital building as we walked up East 43rd Street bawling our eyes out after our companion, Lambie Pie - a fuzzy white stuffed lamb with a music box inside that played "Mary Had a Little Lamb" - was tragically lost.

But our two grandmothers searched every inch of Church Avenue that afternoon and found Lambie Pie in the corner of the laundromat and brought him back to us, where he remains, one ear and eye gone perhaps, but still capable of chiming out his song. Hallelujah! - as our friend Pastor Harvey Jamison of Glorious Trinity Baptist Church in Crown Heights would call upon us all to say tonight at Wingate Field.

(We love the Rev, but he always asks the Lord's blessing for everybody - including sinners like "the media." And we can understand his praying that God give our youth "jobs instead of jails" and "Christ instead of crack," but "manners instead of marijuana"? The two things are not incompatible, as the very polite pot-smokers we encountered yesterday at the McCarren pool will attest.)

Ah well, in his (and our) garrulousness, Pastor Jamison has a role model in the night's MC - of course, our friend Marty Markowitz.

(Photo courtesy of Darlin Nic)

When we arrived on the field - after mistakenly standing on the VIP line for twenty minutes (forgetting that we were in Brooklyn, at first it made no sense to us that ordinary people could waltz right through while VIPs had to stand on an unmoving line) and being body-searched by security (we left our hard-shelled reading glasses case at home because it was mistaken for a pistol last year at the Anita Baker show) - Marty was introducing the young ladies of the Brooklyn Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority that - to be serious here - does an incredible amount of good work in the community and who last night were concentrating on getting folks registered to vote.

About a third of the people in huge crowd - easily twice, maybe even three times, the size you get at the McCarren pool - were carrying around unnecessary yellow Simcha Felder for State Senate fans that got handed out as we were entering. At least they didn't read "I'm a fan of Simcha Felder" because these people, like us, were not here to hear politicians but Miss Patti LaBelle. (Those who preferred listening to politicians were at home watching Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi say stuff we all know by now.)

Councilmember Felder had the sense to recognize this, for at his turn onstage, he simply yelled, "How many of you want the concert to start?" three times, with him and the crowd getting louder every time. We still had to sit through the raffles for free dinners at Applebee's and God-knows-what for National Grid (it was bad enough when Broooklyn Union Gas became Keyspan, but this new name sounds Orwellian) and more of Marty's introductions of politicians (God bless Councilmember Eugene Mathieu for refusing to come onstage and talk) and business leaders.

We were, however, glad to cheer detectives Detective Matthew Walker and his NYPD colleagues who caught the "shameless mutant" (Marty's words, somewhat unfair to the X-Men) who mugged the old lady in that disgusting video we've all seen and who's been responsible for other attacks on seniors in the community (props too to the folks who saw something and said something).

And we were glad to cheer when WBLS's Dr. Art Lee introduced the legendary Hal Jackson, whose voice is more familiar to us than our own (luckily). At 94, this pioneer - first African-American radio sports announcer, first African-American network radio announcer of any kind and, around the time we were the little kid on East 43rd and Linden Boulevard, the first NYC radio personality to broadcast three daily shows on three different stations in the same day - looks amazing and is still going strong. (Listen to WBLS on Sunday afternoons to hear for yourself).

Finally, finally, finally, Marty said, "This is it!. . . Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Patti LaBelle.

And there she was, to the sounds of "We Will Rock You." In a black gown under a white shawl she soon removed (she'd later take off her high heels), Patti looked beautiful. For a self-described 64-year-old diabetic - no, she is not shy about discussing her age ("47 years in the business") or her illness ("I got it, it don't got me") or pretty much everything under the sun, like being menopausal (she got some men to admit we are, too).

She started off with a great rendition of "New Day," and then - as she did between each number - talked to us, really talked to us in an unpretentious, genuinely friendly way. During the night she spoke to individuals - mostly guys - in the audience, like the man with fantastically long dreads she'd seen walking to the concert an hour before. (It took him 20 years to grow it, he said.)

The crowd, of course, was mostly black, but there was a small but vocal contingent of gay white men (and Patti spoke out against any kind of prejudice, including homophobia, during her set) - for whom we like to think she sang "Lady Marmalade." Oh man, we had to bite our lip to stop ourselves from becoming a spectacle.

A kid standing next to us apparently noticed, and said, "I guess you like her." We nodded. He said she was doing good for someone her age, though he admitted he and his friends really didn't listen to this kind of stuff, "from a different generation."

We told him the last time we'd seen Patti live was many years before he was born, maybe 1971, when she was playing Whitman Auditorium with John Prine and The Bitter End with some Scottish folkie whose name we can't recall. It was around the time we wore a button with a raised fist saying The People Will Free the Panther 21.

Back then the trio were going through an odd hitless period - but we loved Patti then as much as we did at 11, when the Bluebelles were the sweethearts of the Apollo, and as we would later when Patti achieved solo success and an astonishing longevity as a performer.

She sang hit after hit - "If You Only Knew," "If You Asked Me To," "The Right Kind of Lover" and many more - and though she kept saying that other people - Mariah Carey, Bonnie Raitt, and other friends - sold a lot more records of each song than she did, Patti LaBelle just proves she can do it all. And at the same time be the among the nicest performers we know.

As we stood on New York Avenue waiting for the B43 bus to take us back to Williamsburg - we left around 9:20 p.m., because although Miss Patti said she'd "sing till she dropped," we were flagging - we felt like we'd been blessed to be at Wingate Field tonight. And it felt like heaven.

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