Cameo reintroduces funk to those who only know ‘Uptown’

Thanks to “Uptown Funk,” a younger generation may be on the brink of discovering killer grooves as played by men in codpieces, platform boots, silver masks and royal crowns.

Sure, 1.4 billion people have watched the video of the instant classic by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars. But Mars working a studio backlot in white hat and purple blazer is more like “Suburban Funk” compared to the psychedelic craziness of true ’70s funk, which Cameo has now reintroduced to the Westgate Cabaret.

The band is most famous for its 1986 hit “Word Up!” But by then, the New York groove monsters had been together for 12 years and had been a solid presence in the R&B charts since 1977. The “Word Up!” album was in fact a successful update to an ’80s sound for a group that had previously labored under the shadow of George Clinton’s twin bands, Parliament and Funkadelic.

To hear it now, it’s hard to know or much care about how it all melded together. Cameo’s “Flirt” draws the line from P-funk to Prince, but the song actually came out a few months earlier in 1982 than Prince’s landmark “1999.”

Now group founder Larry Blackmon has moved to Las Vegas and hopes to make a long-term residency of Cameo. A flexible lineup incorporates veteran “musician’s musicians” including the amazing Johnathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett on drums and guitarist Charlie Singleton — he of the silver mask and a custom guitar looking like the mutant love child of Kiss and Dr. Funkenstein.

These masters offer a 70-minute immersion into the realm that Cameo shared with Clinton: Soaring rock-guitar solos on top of polyrhythmic beats, punctuated by squiggly synthesizers and slinky breakdowns offering bursts of synchronized choreography onstage.

And, as it was with Clinton, the groove and the solos tend to count more than the lyrics or melody. Fans who go deep with the group will be reminded of lower-chart hits such as “She’s Strange” and “Back and Forth,” all of them letting the nine-piece ensemble declare that sampling and electronic rhythms will be held to a minimum, if not banished outright.

Moffett takes a drum solo during “The Single Life,” perched almost comically above the rest of the group above the backstage door of a stage challenged to make room for nine guys (plus an occasional rapping duo, the Gecko Bruthas). At least three of them turn out to be strong singers, helping smooth things out for Blackmon, whose frayed voice most reveals the hard miles of a 40-year career.

Cameo is early into what it hopes will be a long run at the Westgate. But to achieve that, either the band or the room need to make some adjustments.

The show started and ended strong, the latter hardly in question when “Word Up!” is the closer. But it was all on the same plane and, for once, made the room long known as the Shimmer — one of my favorite venues in town — seem less than a perfect match for its content.

Cameo’s set would have been fine at, say, Hard Rock Live or the House of Blues, where people can crowd up close to the stage and shake that thing. The Westgate Cabaret either needs to remove a couple of tiers of seating and let them do that, or Cameo needs to structure its set, and give a seated audience more of an arc than a straight line.

It’s the difference between a “set” and a “show,” and Blackmon should think about how to create a narrative, perhaps by telling the band’s story onstage.

Or at least vary the showmanship beyond the space-boogie costumes and occasional bursts of footwork, perhaps taking a refresher course by sticking around to watch the Prince tribute Purple Reign after them.

If that’s an ironic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign — the real deals learning from a tribute band — it’s not to say you will question Cameo’s musical authenticity the minute you hear the downbeat.

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.

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