Neal Francis leads his band in a performance at The 8×10 on Jan. 31, 2023. (Photo by Casey Vock)
There’s a logo etched into the steel panels on each side of the balcony railing at The 8×10. Most patrons might not know what it is, and only the most veteran live music goers in the Charm City can likely recall when that same symbol was lit up on the front of the building as the venue’s official title from 2003 to 2005.
The establishment would revert to its original name and would change ownership too, but the “Funk Box” emblems have remained and still display just above stage right and left.
Yet even the business’ current co-owners, Brian Shupe and Abigail Janssens, weren’t fully aware that the logo’s true origins. Then, one day while perusing a nearby FYE retail store, they were suddenly beheld by a seductive four-compact disc collection featuring a lush red velvet jacket and a glossy logo that popped right off the cover — The Funk Box.
Taking the stage with his band the night of Jan. 31, Chicago-based Neal Francis would embody and pay homage to all that the logo stood for on the infectious boxed set and as the name of this storied little nook — an effort by previous owners to usher the sounds and influence of jazz, soul, funk and the like into the lively Federal Hill neighborhood.
Listen to Neal Francis’ 2022 album Sentimental Garbage via Spotify:
Owning a vintage style and invincible swagger, Francis has quickly emerged as one of the most refreshing and invigorating sources of contemporary funk and R&B, and his year ahead speaks to an artist rapidly on the rise, with a busy schedule highlighted by stops at major festivals in the U.S. and abroad.
With Neal at the front — a gifted piano and keyboard player — the group is a bursting, jubilant four-piece band, and it pumped, strutted and grooved through an unforgettable set of original music before a packed house last Tuesday night.
Following what was an explosively soulful and breathtaking performance by the night’s opening act, the acclaimed Danielle Ponder from Rochester, N.Y., Francis and his squad fashionably took the small stage, each in chic retro attire and glowing with good vibes from head to toe. Extravagant from any angle, Neal wore a dazzling red dinner coat, silver draped around his neck, his golden hair with a healthy bounce and his confident expression that of a conductor determined and prepared to invigorate with his music.
He’d kick it off with “Alameda Apartments,” the full-throttle, seamless opener to 2021’s In Plain Sight, which is only the second full studio release Francis has offered to the world under his name. Motoring with an attractive buzz that builds the upbeat tones of the track, it was a dazzling showcase of the band’s calibration as well as Neal’s adoring frequency and his ability to flutter and whirl on the keys. He sat at a Yamaha piano, and on top of that, a smaller Yamaha keyboard.
“Hello, Baltimore,” said Francis, who hails from New Jersey and was a member of instrumental funk band The Heard before going through some significant life changes and eventually finding his own solo path. “We love you. Thanks for coming out on Tuesday. I spent a lot of time here in my youth so it’s special to be here, sold out.”
After a steaming take on the desirous “Problems,” the second track on the 2021 record that hears Neal rise to unthinkably high octaves, he moved from his seat amid the boisterous cheers to stand behind a well-worn Hohner Clavinet D6. And from this newer position with greater purview of the audience, Francis would pump two sets of keys as well as a shiny metal arm — a whammy bar added into the decades-old deck, which sat above another one, possibly a modification by the Chicago Electric Piano Company.
With the know-how and fever to manipulate to a finer degree the notes he was playing, Francis put on a cinematic exhibit in “This Time” from his 2019 premiere breakthrough “Changes.” He twisted and danced behind the stand, jiggling the handle, or angling it and suspending it while taking pleasure in absorbing the lights, the vibrations and the response of the room.
“We’re already having a great time up here — I can tell you that much,” he said into the mic. “Baltimore, on a Tuesday night.”
The skin-tight and friendly group served up a momentous take on “Say Your Prayers,” epically segued into “Changes” and then, showing no signs of fatigue, moseyed right into the red-hot, hip-turning “She’s A Winner” — on both levels, onlookers bopped and boogied, but the spring-loaded dance floor would indeed bow as this crew would play one of the very funkiest sets of music to ever ignite at The 8×10 or even the temporary alter-ego that was the Funk Box.
“Now, if someone could show me the cold plunge,” the sweat was showing on Neal’s skin and that of his teammates.
“Baltimore loves you,” a holler from up yonder, on the mezzanine.
“Baltimore, we love you to,” and he seemed earnest about that affection.
While Neal’s discussed his own unique set of inspirations in interviews, there’s no stretch in saying he channels the expressive fortitude that appears lesser common in live music today but oozes out of so many recordings from the 1970s — and, specifically, much of the track listing of The Funk Box, officially released in 2000 by Hip-O Records.
Supported by a band that can heighten the enrapturing melody and collective bend and grow it to ecstatic climaxes, Neal and company proved they can persist a rhythm into glorious and gratifying territory. The group is the very definition of enticing but at a crucial time when these textures and approaches seem less pursued by the successful up-and-coming musicians, save the few national touring acts with a true flavor for this snazzy breed of dripping, shameless testimony that billows and gets the listener’s wheels turning.
Tilting his head back and flinging it in any direction, Neal would siphon the magic from his elaborate throwback setup, which was connected to a Leslie speaker at the back of the stage — the most curious attendees early in the night had been perplexed by the spinning bowels inside it.
Their attention would shift of course to Neal and the three impressive gentlemen working with him.
Watch the official music video for Neal Francis’ 2021 single “Prometheus” via the artist’s official YouTube channel:
Bright-eyed and explosive on his assorted electric guitar, Kellen Boersma added glamour and excitement to the mix in the form of nasty licks or sustained howls as these songs morphed into thrilling jams that pounded and soared with a rock edge.
Bassist Mike Starr, boasting some of the best curls in live music, played some of the most flexible, outright attitudinal notes to drive these ambitious, sassy pieces. Underneath it all, so much seems to be asked of drummer Collin O’Brien, and he was frisky, vigorous, attentive — making eye-contact to monitor the situation at any moment to keep the beat in the right place and at the right pace. “That drummer is a bad ass,” one gray-haired woman let out loud enough for others to hear.
A clear sign of a band in a good place, each member would playfully point at one another as Neal tried to applaud him for their efforts, passing the attention on to the next man in a running game of tag.
And an assured sign of a promising and destined visionary, Neal is after years of hard living now enjoying a sober lifestyle that’s bolstering his songwriting, as he expanded on when Parklife DC had the chance to interview him at the Newport Folk Festival last summer.
He would move from his seat to his feet throughout the night, which turned into the exact kind of presentation the bar was established to host in the first place — on the rise talent about to make a leap to the next level, performing to what feels like a private house party. And it felt like the roof was going to blow off the place as Francis led the group through illusory creations like “Prometheus” from In Plain Sight and, later as the set closer, “BNYLV” from the same must-hear release.
Listen to Neal Francis’ 2021 studio album In Plain Sight via Spotify:
Returning to screams and shouts from amped fans, Neal was casual but grateful before rounding out this demonstration with the hyper-charged “How Have I Lived” and sending ticketholders on their way richly satisfied, and more than likely fans for life.
In doing so, he joined a long list of eventual stars who’ve played the unassuming bar with a capacity of just 400 people — the likes of Billy Joel, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Phish, believe it or not. And with so many good things and valuable opportunities rapidly coming Neal’s way, the chance to see him in such an intimate setting will inevitably become a treasured one.
Say Your Prayers>
She’s A Winner
Don’t Want You To Know
Can’t Stop The Rain
How Have I Lived
Here are images of Neal Francis along with the night’s opener, Danielle Ponder, performing at The 8×10 in Baltimore the night of Jan. 31. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.