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Rick James’ Stone City Band lights up the Tralf

Rick James, “punk funk” recording artist, provocateur and a Buffalo native deeply embedded in this city’s lore, was paid rich tribute on Friday night when his Stone City Band played the Tralf. It was a night of homecoming-style bear hugs, high-fives, bad-boy references and dance-inducing rhythms.

Billed as “Rick James’ Original Stone City Band,” the group is currently five musicians who performed with James during various incarnations of his studio and touring years, as well as new additions. All these James conspirators (11 in all) crammed onto – and lit up – the club’s stage. The ensemble, fleshed out with a horn section and second keyboard player, does justice to the memory of James. Now based in Las Vegas, the band performs regularly in the city of facsimiles. This was its first appearance in Buffalo in two years.

The Tralf, filled to capacity with audience members at tables and chairs, made an odd decision to not have a dance floor. As the band’s 90-minute set heated up, dancers made do, boogying wherever they could.

As is tradition in some musical genres, the band took the stage for several interludes before backup vocalist Mark Love, a Stone City member from the ’90s, sang “Stone City Band, Hi!” and “Ghetto Life,” an inner-city coming-of-age classic from 1981. It was the first showcase for vocalist and guitar-playing Randall Bostick, who bound onstage in long braids (a James trademark), pink sequined shirt and sensible black trousers.

Bostick, an obvious student of James’ style, is a near-perfect look- and sound-alike. His voice, not quite as rich as the original, is still a solid instrument for conveying the dance hits for which James is known, songs about reveling – and loving – large.

“You and I,” “Rick’s first hit,” of 1978 vintage and distinctive thumping bass line, proved that Bostick had chops and moves. The band’s horn section added a brassy edge, with saxophonist Mario DiGiulio, of Reno, Nev., taking a brief, driving solo. Grounding drummer Lanise Hughes and stoic guitarist Tom McDermott (both original band members, as is keyboardist Billy Nunn of soaring melodies) infused the set with harder-rocking moments.

Bostick, noting mid-set that several members of James’ family were present, asked them to stand and take a bow, which they did. Proud siblings Camille Johnson Hudson, of Cleveland, Buffalo attorney LeRoi Johnson and Carmen Sims clearly enjoyed the show at their table full of family and friends.

Johnson, early Stone City Band manager (and designer of the band’s logo and merch still in use), stated before the show got under way, “Rick is a concept, a whole package – attitude, performing skills, writer, producer. No one can take the place of Rick.” But he had praise for the singer working hard under the hot lights that night.

There were a few costume changes by Bostick, ample opportunity for second backup singer Sheli B to pay tribute to James’ late protégé Teena Marie during “I Need Your Lovin’,” her beseeching Motown disco hit. The two made a beautiful duet out of James’ ballad “Fire and Desire,” the set’s “take it down” moment before the powerful triad that ended the set dynamically: “Mary Jane,” “Give It to Me Baby” and the ultra-rollicking encore “Super Freak.”

Before the encore, each musician was introduced, finally. There were appeals to “keep the music alive” and to sign a petition circulating in the room lobbying for Rick James’ inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The extended Stone City Band, lining up at the stage’s edge, basked in the adulation. Those who had not been dancing all night stood, joining the others for a deserved standing ovation, Bostick shouting, “Much love to you, Buffalo!”

R&B quintet Life opened for Stone City Band and laid down suitable grooves for the night, urging “C’mon Buffalo, let’s go!” The crowd needed little urging. The band played a concise set of R&B songs from the ’70s, including a great rendition of The Gap Band’s “Outstanding,” inspiring energetic call-and-response.