In our urban communities the struggle is real. As black and brown people are being driven out of their homes, our communities are left struggling to hang on to the artistic traditions that made them unique. In Oakland, the same community that birthed disco, soul and funk legends like Sly & the Family Stone, Graham Central Station, the Pointer Sisters and Tony Toni Tone has found itself in a fight to maintain its creative spirit. However, artists have been working even harder to #keepoaklandcreative and keep the tradition alive by making good pure music driven by the beat of the community.
One such group is the amazing Valerie Troutt & Mooncandy House Ensemble. I first experienced Mooncandy as the musical portion of the Press Play Poets State of Black Bodies. I was struck then by their dynamic vocals as an acapella quartet. At the time I had no idea the 4 ladies on stage were just a piece of a larger band. Led by Oakland vocalist & composer Valerie Troutt, Mooncandy is an 11-piece soulful house ensemble. The band released a teaser EP aptly titled “The Struggle is Real” as an appetizer for their full length album. This Yoshi’s show served as a work in progress preview of the full project. Months before the show the group ran a crowd-funding campaign where fans were able to support their album. The sold-out crowd was in obvious anticipation and ready to dance. The main event was the groups debut at Oakland’s legendary Yoshi’s Jazz club. Already knowing that all of these humans are immensely talented I was incredibly excited to see this show.
Let’s just say I wasn’t ready. Over the years I have seen many artists hit the stage at Yoshi’s. I have sat front row for Grammy winners, multi-platinum artists and musical legends. Last week Mooncandy put on a show that immediately jump into my list of top 10 performances at Yoshi’s. The set started very mellow with a solo from trumpeter Rofa Postal as the rest of the band and then vocalists took the stage. Slowly the tempo crept up as the house vibes kicked in and off we went. Mooncandy hit the gas and took us on musical journey. From wire to wire they ebbed and flowed effortlessly within the groove. No stops and no unnecessary monologues. As a set it was very well put together in a very Songs in the Key of Life type way. During the journey we navigated a variety of themes and emotions like love, loss, community, and what Shonda Rhimes would call the need to dance it out. Every song matched the energy that the lyrics emoted. It flowed together very much like your quintessential soulful house mixtape and like a mixtape the groove stayed consistent. The band stayed right in the pocket effortlessly driving the set. I have listened to a great amount of house in my time but never experienced a live house band. I would the experience to the amazing acid-jazz UK bands of the 90’s like Jamiroquai and Brand New Heavies or even Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor interweaving funk essentials with jazz sensibilities that made you dance. I may have got the Roy Hargrove feel from Rofa’s trumpet solos which lay perfectly inside each groove. Scott Keller killed the drums for absolutely no damn reason while Jackie Ragu worked that percussion section. Elton Bradman (bass) and Lamar Green put in that work holding down the melodies.
Vocally the group was more like a super group. I am not just saying that either. You have some groups that are like your basic church choir with one good lead and a bunch of weak singers that just manage to stay on key. Then you have groups that are like a gospel mega choir that you have to audition for where every vocalist is powerful and can randomly take you to church at any moment. Mooncandy is absolutely the later which made me happy because I am obsessed with backing vocal arrangements. Don’t judge me. Who are you to judge me?! The is nothing I enjoy more than strong tight background vocals held together by amazing arrangements and there was certainly no lack in that area but it was certainly a family affair as each vocalist (Shamont Houssey, Paulynn Brown, Jovan Watkins, Rashida Chase) took turns doing their good sangin.
Valerie joked that this was going to be like a church service but I think it was only half of a joke and I’m not just saying that because I know all the church folks in the audience. It was truly a religious experience. Because the type of venue that Yoshi’s is the did need a little encouragement to shake the dust off but once they did people were dancing in the aisles. When the band hit their groove and really started to burn we all felt it and moved accordingly like a good church service should. There was lots of dancing, call and response, and I think I even heard somebody Shabach their approval. The soulful holy ghost was in that place.
Once the audience was sufficiently open and entranced with the energy in the room the group shifted into what was clearly the emotional climax of the evening with their ode to Black Lives Matter featuring poet Audacious IAM. A song that could easily be taken as an anthem of the movement as it describes the current state of our communities followed by simple yet moving refrain of Black Lives Matter that I hesitate to call catchy because that’s a word usually reserved for empty pop choruses. Yet it IS very catchy and leaves an indelible imprint that makes sure that Black Lives Matter stays on your mind and the tip of your tongue. Part alter call, part call to action. It was a beautiful plea to the community to rally around those most affected by the trauma being inflicted on the most vulnerable members of our communities.
Overall, the Mooncandy experience was an amazing one. Spiritual, healing, funky, and soulful. It’s an incredible start for this group I look forward to taking in the full length project. Oh I do have one complaint. An hour and a half was not nearly long enough. That is all.
Check out Mooncandy House Ensemble and other project by Valerie Trout: