Max Weinberg couldn’t figure out what to call his new group with Bill Champlin. After the way they joked around Monday at the Dakota during their second gig ever, the Deli Brothers might have been appropriate. Musically, though, it felt like Max Weinberg & the Bill Champlin Band.
It’s essentially a high-priced R&B bar-band but most of the members are acquaintances of Champlin. Weinberg just met guest saxophonist Mindi Abair (an unofficial member who adds a spark and a sparkle) three days ago at his first gig with Champlin. The group — featuring Champlin’s talented 28-year-old son Will on keyboards and vocals as well as musicians who have played with Rufus (fluid and funky bassist Bobby Watson), Stevie Wonder, Rufus, Dolly Parton, Tower of Power and Lynyrd Skynyrd — was essentially an all-star band.
The repertoire mixed classics (by Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett), obscure oldies (by Booker T & the MGs, Dave Edmunds) and material associated with Champlin (from his 28 years with Chicago, his hit songwriting career, his one solo hit) and with Weinberg (who has spent 36 years with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band and 17 years with Conan O’Brien on TV). There was even a Dave Koz instrumental to allow an alto saxophone duet between Abair and Tom Saviano. Weinberg called it "saxual healing."
Guitarist-organist-singer Champlin, who looks like a Kennedy who became a weathered old Western-movie star, sang blues, soul and pop with a high thin voice that sounded like a cross between Boz Scaggs and John Fogerty. Considering that drummer Weinberg got top billing, Champlin did a fair amount of talking in Monday’s opening 85-minute set. After Weinberg had credited one song (the theme to TV’s "In the Heat of the Night") to Champlin, the singer corrected him that Quincy Jones had actually written it, which led to an ongoing joke for the rest of the night — including the second set.
Weinberg and Champlin landed on the same page for their Springsteen numbers — a jazzy reading of "The Fever" featuring Champlin’s B-3 organ, Carmen Grillo’s guitar and Steve Madeo’s muted trumpet, and the closing, rambunctious "Ramrod," which was dedicated to the recently deceased saxophonist Clarence Clemons ("This is one that speaks to the grace, presence and majesty of the Big Man," Mighty Max said). Abair took the Big Man’s solo, stepping front and center like she belonged.
Which suggests another possible moniker: Max & Mindi.
Whatever the group is called, it will perform again at 7 and 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Dakota Jazz Club before heading to Summerfest in Milwaukee.