Local Current Blog

Cynthia Johnson helps to kick off Super Bowl Live with ‘Funkytown’ and a Flyte Tyme reunion

Cynthia Johnson performs "Funkytown" at Super Bowl Live (Photos by Steven Cohen for the Current)

The 10-day series of free concerts known as Super Bowl Live kicked off Friday night in downtown Minneapolis, with thousands flooding the corner of Nicollet and 8th St. to hear the Frozen singer Idina Menzel belt out “Let It Go” and to catch their first glimpse of the spectacle lining Nicollet Mall.

The opening ceremony began with speeches from the new Minneapolis mayor, Jacob Frey, and concert curators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, plus Esera Tuoulo (wearing only a t-shirt!) singing the national anthem and VocalEssence performing a medley of Minnesota-related hits. As anticipation built, the packed crowd did their best to navigate the labyrinthine set-up of barricades that surround the concert area on Nicollet and angle for a spot to see and hear.

Regardless of which direction folks tried to enter the mall, security seemed to tell them that they needed to find another way. On my short walk from the entrance of the mall on LaSalle and 8th St. to the inside of the concert barricades, at least five security staff shouted five different things in my general direction, frantically telling the crowd to stop moving and then walk faster despite the fact that the only possible speed was trudging slowly ahead. (It’s possible they weren’t expecting quite so many people for Menzel, and that these were simply opening day quirks; friends who attended Super Bowl Live later in the evening reported that they had a much easier time moving in and out of the concert area.)

But music seems to have a way of melting these things away, and as soon as Idina Menzel stepped on stage the mall was flooded with the glorious high-pitched squall of hundreds of tiny humans laying eyes on their idol. For four blissful minutes the sounds of “Let it Go” united the mall, and a chorus of little voices rang out in glee.

As soon as Menzel finished, parents carrying impatient toddlers on their shoulders made a swift exit, making it easy for local music fans to angle for a better spot in front of the stage in anticipation of the next performance by Cynthia Johnson. Johnson was scheduled to sing her 1979 hit with Lipps, Inc., “Funkytown,” with an added twist: she’d be joined by her bandmates from the group she performed in just before that, Flyte Tyme, which was an early incarnation of The Time that stormed the North Side of Minneapolis in the 1970s.

“Behind me is the original Flyte Tyme band,” Johnson said before starting the song. “Behind me is Mr. Terry Lewis and Mr. Jimmy Jam. This is the new Funkytown.”

And with that, the group — which included original Flyte Tyme members Jellybean Johnson on drums and David Eiland on saxophone, plus horn players Robert Martin, Robert Johnson, and Jimmy “Chipmunk” Anderson, keyboardist Gary McCray, and guitarists Tom Lund and Joey Kareem — transported the crowd back to the nascent days of the Minneapolis Sound, reworking the robotic disco track into a synth-driven groove that broke open into horn solos and a satisfying, if short, funk jam. Although Lipps, Inc.’s Steven Greenberg claims that “Funkytown” was an ode to escaping Minnesota for a place that was more exciting and diverse, this week Johnson is re-dedicating the tune to Minneapolis. “This is ‘Funkytown’ — at least for the next seven days,” she said. Take note and spend your time wisely.

The performance by Cynthia Johnson and Flyte Tyme was just the kind of historic collaboration locals were hoping for when Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were announced as the event’s curators; the energy they brought to that stage for a single song made me even more excited to see how the next nine days on Nicollet Mall (and at venues like the Dakota Jazz Club and the Minnesota Music Cafe, who will be hosting pop-up performances by Minneapolis Sound-affiliated acts) are about to unfold.

Photos of the Super Bowl Live opening festivities by Steven Cohen: