The Pharaohs' only studio album, Awakening, contains a song called "Freedom Road," and I've had its main hook darting through my head on a semiregular basis ever since I first heard it. What makes this remarkable is that I first heard it 25 years ago. Apparently it stuck in the ears of others as well: the original LP's cult popularity a generation later has led to its recent reissue, as well as the release of a live set called In the Basement (both on Luv n' Haight)--and now the wholly unexpected reactivation of this groove-hopping nonet. From the beginning, their tightly clustered horn harmonies and killer riffs made the Pharaohs somewhat analogous to Tower of Power--but though lesser known, they had a greater capacity for improvisation, far more rhythmic complexity, and an obviously different worldview (as seen in such song titles as "Damballa" and "Black Enuff"). In retrospect, it shouldn't surprise anyone that several members of the band ended up in Earth, Wind and Fire: both groups drew on different branches of the African-American river that courses through Chicago music history, linking such supposedly disparate entities as Muddy Waters, Eddie Harris, Sun Ra, and even disco champs the Ohio Players. By the time they disbanded in 1973 the Pharaohs had created an unforgettably vibrant, accessibly idiosyncratic fusion of soul, jazz, and African percussion. They had also tapped into the Egyptology-as-black-history movement popularized in music by Sun Ra, which provided the inspiration for the band's name; since then, founder and trumpeter Charles Handy has delved deeper into it through studies at the Field Museum. How this will play out in the band's second incarnation remains unknown, as does the chemistry between the remaining original Pharaohs--saxist Black Herman Waterford, trombonist Big Willie Woods, and guitarist Yehudah Ben Israel--and such new additions as tenor man Hank Ford and keyboardist Aki Antonia. In any case, this weekend the band I never thought I'd hear live plays for only the second time since the mid-70s. Friday, 9 and 11 PM, Velvet Lounge, 2128fi S. Indiana; 312-791-9050. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marc PoKempner.