Last night’s second annual Chef Jam at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was an unqualified success and a fine example of Cleveland’s ability to be fancy and approachable at the same time.
The extravaganza — which was organized by Crop Bistro’s Steve Schimoler — began as a BBQ three years ago at the Beachland Ballroom before being redubbed and reconstituted in its present form at the Rock Hall, whose atmosphere perfectly fits the event.
More than 20 local restaurants participated, offering a dizzying array of delights to accompany free wine and beer, and music from a couple local cover bands (including a guest appearance by the Raspberries’ Jim Bonfanti) and headliner the English Beat. Situated on the ground and third floors, the food was terrific ranging from Melt’s heavenly fried twinkies to Melange’s delicious pork bellies and beans, Naked Cowboy’s sizable oysters and Bar Cento’s lip-smacking beef tongue taco, among the favorites.
The Rock Hall is a pretty ideal place for the affair. It was a little crammed at times for the sold-out crowd milling about the eating/bar areas, especially since no food or drink was allowed anywhere else except the main floor where the band was set up. However, the acoustics proved terrific, allowing you to hear the music well throughout the museum, other than in the large, doored ground-floor exhibit area.
The crowd was an odd mix of suburban-set cocktail dresses and high heels, aging rockers of both sexes in blue jeans and T-shirts, and young bohemes, many of whom wandered the museum after their restaurant stations ran out of food. They proved a very rock & roll contingent, showcasing the music’s ability to reach across an array of socio-economic backgrounds.
Abbey Rodeo played second offering a variety of British Invasion-era covers, and featured guest vocalist Bonfanti. Concentrating on pre-Sgt. Pepper's ‘60s pop and rock, they were a fine aperitif for the English Beat. The band — whose moniker was meant to make them distinct from the Los Angeles outfit the Beat — is now a tad confusing, since Dave Wakeling leads the Americanized version while his former bandmate Ranking Roger leads a U.K. version of the band.
While Wakeling’s the only remaining original member, he’s surrounded himself with fine session players, and he’s still in fine voice. Though initially inspired by reggae by the time of their third release, Special Beat Service (which was far more successful in the U.S. than the U.K.), they’d brought out more of the soul and pop elements implicit in reggae, putting some distance between them and the 2-Tone sound they helped originate in the late ‘70s.
It’s a sound that’s quite catchy and pop, but, thanks to the vibrant rhythms also quite danceable. This made them very popular with the crowd, as numerous women who may not have been to a club in the last decade, pushed toward the front and shook it like they just didn’t care (which given the amount of free booze served, might just have been the case). It was certainly a much more coed experience than most rock shows, and the English Beat served them well with a mix of the ‘80s classics which seemed to speak to young and old alike.
After kicking things off with an extended version of one of their finest tracks, “Save it For Later,” they performed hits like “Tears of A Clown” and “I Confess.” They also ran through those of his and Ranking Roger’s follow-up act, General Public, including a wonderful version of “Tenderness,” and their cover of the Staples Singers classic “I’ll Take You There.” The mid-set announcement that the Mavericks had beaten the Heat brought loud cheers from the crowd, and prompted Wakeling to comment that he wished he could offer such warmly received remarks every night.
Ranking Roger’s replacement, Antonee First Class, provided a couple impromptu between-song raps about Cleveland and the Rock Hall before giving his spin on their boisterous ska rager, “Ranking Full Stop.” They closed with a crackling version of their dark unsung (in America) debut album ode to cocaine addiction, “Mirror in the Bathroom.” Though only an hour long, the set had hardly a soft spot in it, and the crowd kept dancing until they called it quits shortly after 11. It was the type of lively, senses-inundating experience the Rock Hall should offer more of, rather than simply tickling our taste buds with anticipation for next year. —Chris Parker