Fans flock to reunion show of go-go legends Rare Essence

Over 2,000 fans packed the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City on Saturday night to celebrate the reunion of legendary Washington go-go band Rare Essence.
By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010

Mere minutes into Rare Essence's reunion set and the dance floor is already at full churn -- not on a trip through time, but in a rapturous celebration of been-here-all-along.

It's late Saturday night, and the Washington teenagers who once swarmed the legendary go-go band's '80s and '90s gigs at the now-shuttered Maverick Room, Washington Coliseum and Black Hole are now middle-aged, but still ready to perspire through Polos and Kangols, halter tops and heels. Over 2,000 strong, they've crammed into the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City to celebrate three decades of go-go, Washington's own indestructible funk dialect.

In many ways, the story of Rare Essence is the story of go-go: marathon performances, zealous fans, flirtations with national fame, flares of violence at concerts and the media mischaracterizations that followed.

And while the band lost some of its members along the way -- some to violence, some to time -- Rare Essence never went away. Instead, this reunion gathers 28 surviving members from every era, every lineup, including founding bassist Michael "Funky Ned" Neal, trombonist John "Big Horn" Jones and guitarist and mainstay Andre "Whiteboy" Johnson.

They sound like they've never been apart. When percussionist Milton "Go-Go Mickey" Freeman erupts in conga spasm, the crowd exults. Johnson estimates that this band has performed more than 5,000 times. Like so many Rare Essence concerts, it's easy to believe you're seeing the best one.

* * *

Three hours earlier, the band has just finished its sound check with "R.E. Express," a vintage cut that transforms the frosty German engineering of Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" into a go-go magma. Johnson and vocalist-saxophonist Donnell Floyd are in an adjacent hallway, sitting on a plush sofa and a secret. After defecting in 2001, Floyd isn't just back in the band for the night -- he's back in the band for good.

"One of the things I realized while I was out there, was that I needed 'em," Floyd says of his decade away. He'll be joining the band at Tradewinds in Temple Hills this Friday.

The musicians aren't the only ones reuniting. Outside the Hyatt, fans are lining up and catching up, trading hugs and trading phone numbers. Down two escalators and through a security check, they gather in the atrium, some sporting red and white -- the colors R.E. used to ask fans to wear to its shows in the '80s. Tony Sanders, who's been following the band since 1982, dons a red T-shirt and a white towel draped over his shoulder.

"This is inner-city music," he says. "We grew up here and we stayed here. Go-go is never gonna die."

Others wear sharp blazers, including Calvin Matthews, who sneaked into his first Rare Essence show in 1981. "Essence stayed true to hardcore go-go," Matthews says. "That's why you're gonna see so many people here tonight, from young to old."

Crystal Johnson is on the younger side. At 28, she hasn't seen the band in two years, but used to tote a fake ID to get into shows. She came to Saturday night's reunion for one reason: "The crowd."

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