Ricky Draughn leaned into the microphone, members of his ensemble behind him poised at their instruments. “We gonna take it back to like ... 1972,” he declared with a laugh as they launched into a soulful version of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady.”
The audience cheered. Children ran around each other on the grass, breaking into a sort of dancing tag as the music began. “Go ‘head!,” one attendee urged. “Yes!” another exclaimed as “Rock Steady” merged into a version of EU’s hit “Da Butt.” (Click on the video above for the performance of the two songs.)
Ricky Draughn’s performance with the Slammin’ Band, Aug. 21 in Scantlebury Park, rounded out the city’s first “Music in the Parks” summer season, which drew varied attendance between its four performances. Each installment featured an artist or group, bringing attention to local talent in an ever-expanding music scene and capping an endless outdoor live-music summer.
“It’s an opportunity to highlight some of New Haven’s talent,” said Kim Futrell, outreach coordinator for the City of New Haven and a major force in organizing the series.
She was spot on. As demonstrated in his performances of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “All of Me” (video above), Draughn is the kind of musician who puts every measure of his being into the piece he is performing. His voice drips honey at its sweetest and throws flames when he is pouring soul into it.
The band members bring the same pizazz and panache to each moment. Riding on merits that include headlining Mayor Toni Harp’s inaugural ball earlier this year, members’ Grammy Award nominations, and new recordings in the works, the Slammin’ Band lived up to its name, bringing audience members to their feet in a celebration of both dance-worthy jams and a strong show of community.
This concerts this summer in Goffe Street Park, Roberto Clemente Field, Fairmont Park and Scantlebury Park also raised community awareness of the parks and their surrounding neighborhoods.
“We picked parks that were heavily utilized and had active community groups. The idea came about in conversation with the director of cultural affairs, and an interest in getting the community more involved. We’ve had a lot of terrific feedback from parks patrons, and from local community leaders,” city parks Director Rebecca Bombero said in an interview before the final performance.
While Futrell added that “the numbers are not as high as I had wanted them to be – let’s leave it at that,” attendance has climbed slowly over several weeks. At the final performance, the crowd numbered over 150.
For many locals, it was a chance to represent the neighborhood. “I enjoy this park. I love listening to music and being around people, sharing conversation with friends,” said Ramona Marshall (pictured), who had come out with her friend Roslyn Rogers to enjoy the cool evening with others in the neighborhood.
“What a wonderful night,” said state Rep. Robyn Porter, who chatted with state Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield when she wasn’t on her feet dancing or clapping her hands together to tunes like “We Got the Funk” and “Purple Rain.”
For others, the performance was a chance for family bonding. “We’re here because of him,” said Jane Jeuland (pictured), motioning to her son as he murmured a wonder-filled “wow!” at the performance’s 6 p.m. warmup. “We live a few blocks away, and as we were driving by we saw them setting up and he [our son] was interested.”
Because feedback has been so positive, the New Haven Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism projects that this year’s series will turn into an annual tradition.
“Overall the reception has been positive, people have definitely appreciated it. People are seeing some of the advantages [of the parks] they wouldn’t otherwise. Obviously there are hopes to continue this next year,” said Futrell.
Dixwell Alder Jeanette L. Morrison put it another way.
“We need to keep doing this for the community,” she said. A wide, still sky settled over Dixwell as families applauded the band one last time, and turned around to head home.