Retro piano man Neal Francis brings a vintage funk frenzy to Charleston, South Carolina.
Francis brought a booming 11-piece band of musicians to the Music Hall, along with the band's usual quartet of Francis (singer, piano), Kellen Boersma (guitar), Mike Starr (bass), and Collin O’Brien (drums). Francis also included a horn section, extra percussion, backup vocalists, and even more keyboards. If you have heard his latest release, the live album Francis Comes Alive (2023), then you no doubt know that Francis and his funk freight train of musicians know how to put on a great live show.
Collin’s drums echoed through the hall and drew the audience in. Francis took to the stage, smiled, and dove right in. He started with the velvety opening track to his 2021 sophomore album In Plain Sight, “Alameda Apartments.” A raw and haunting reveal of his inner demons. Francis’s piano work was fully displayed, his fingers dancing effortlessly across his Yamaha CP70. Waves of shimmering sounds created an ethereal state. The song's melody, retro groove, and narrative lyrics danced on the edge of sadness and an overwhelming eagerness.
Switching to his Hammond A-100 organ, Francis continued with the song "This Time," the opening track from his 2019 breakout album Changes. Changes is, without a doubt an album of self-reflection. “This Time” reflects Neal’s hope for redemption and a chance to change his ways. Throughout the lyrics, there is a clear understanding and acceptance of past mistakes and a desire to break free from destructive patterns.
Francis seemed to be hitting his stride when the band kicked off the tile track from Changes. The epic “Changes 1&2” is a song with a sound that is dripping with a tactile vintage feel. Even the high-energy live performance hummed with the sounds record collectors swear you can only get from vinyl. O’Brien tickled the cymbal, Francis keyed the unmistakable organ note, Boersma’s strings cried out, and Starr laid down a lush, deep bassline. "Changes, Pts. 1 & 2" has an unmistakable sound, and the lyrics again reflect the internal struggles and external pressures accompanying change. Francis's smooth vocals perfectly laced the repeated lyrics of "changes running through my life" and easily conveyed the emotional roller coaster of transformation. The band and the crowd were getting rowdy for this song, culminating in a jaw-dropping display of Francis's mastery over the ivories.
On the triumphant “Prometheus” from In Plain Sight, Francis again lyrically dove into struggle, regret, and the consequences. The band seemed to go into a musical trance during the song, each instrument elevating the other. The big band sound of horns and backup singers perfectly combined with Neal’s ability to get a kaleidoscope of sound from his keys and was accentuated by Boersma’s insane fretwork.
Francis switched gears for the song “Problems” and eased into a brighter and breezier mood. “Problems” lyrics starkly contrasted the song’s glowing synth and energetic harmonies. The lyrics "Lord knows I've got enough problems, I don't need one more, one more" expresses Francis's reluctance to take on any additional burdens. That's a sentiment that I think we can all agree on.
The band closed out the night with the encore “BNYLV,” a reflective and somewhat melancholic song about an ended relationship. The lyrics acknowledge still yearning for lasting love but finding happiness in your path to self-improvement. This performance was a true crowd-pleaser. The horn section attempted to steal the show. The trumpet and trombone effortlessly dueled each other for the crowd's roar while Francis mercilessly laid into his keyboard.
Neal Francis’ balancing act of meshing a retro mindset with a modern sensibility just works. His live show blended genres and an unmistakable vintage musical style with high energy, infectious hooks, and expert musical prowess. His music reflects a fresh, always compelling perspective, and concertgoers should not miss this live show.