Review

Rising soul singer Andra Day makes flaws seem beautiful at the El Rey

Andra Day took out a handkerchief from her pocket and began wiping off her makeup.

A normal thing to do after a show, for sure. But the young neo-soul singer wasn’t winding down backstage, sweaty from her sold-out show at the El Rey on Wednesday. She did it midway through her set, in front of everyone who came to see her.

“I always felt more comfortable with a full face of makeup,” she said, describing fears about her self-image as a younger woman. But now, she said as she wiped off her concealer and lipstick, “as my face got cleaner, my relationships got cleaner.”

Then she snapped her band into a cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “No Make-Up (Her Vice),” flipping that song’s empathetic verses about women’s beauty anxieties inside out. Day turned a quiet moment of self-acceptance into a grand, confident stage move.

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That kind of gesture has been Day’s trademark since she surfaced with last year’s “Cheers to the Fall,” a debut LP that spans genuine old-soul classics like Aretha Franklin, newer revivalist acts like Amy Winehouse and the genre adventurism (and occasional radicalism) of Lauryn Hill and Eartha Kitt.

In February, she turned ears at the White House during a musical tribute to Ray Charles, but her biggest break came at the Grammy Awards, where she burned down her duet with an overmatched Ellie Goulding and instantly became the talk of the telecast. Day had the biggest sales bump of any artist who performed that night.

Her El Rey show proved that her talent is rare and immense. Even if she’s still sorting out her material for hour-and-a-half headline shows, she pairs star power and empathy in ways that could take her career almost anywhere.

Day has a brassy and wide-ranging voice that settles right into high-energy funk or desolate ballads. It’s rare to find an R&B belter who can also flip into hip-hop cadences and long, improvised jazz runs. Her original material like “Gin & Juice (Let Go My Hand)” and “Rearview” are informed by Stax, Motown and Muscle Shoals, but there’s always something to set her sound apart from being a museum piece.

Part of that is her presence. She can come onstage in an Aretha-worthy fur coat to hit the throwback notes, but she’s just as comfortable imbuing those old looks with contemporary feminism and a genial, conversational stage presence. (Imagine a pop star like Rihanna taking a mid-set makeup-removal break.)

She also has some sharper edges in her worldview. Her choices of covers allied herself with the current movements in pop music and politics toward overt expressions of black pride. Few pop singers today could technically tackle Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” (or have the moral nerve to try at a sold-out headline show not long after your Grammy debut). But Day did it with passion, respect and a perfect mix of anger and virtuosity.

Day’s still working out the mechanics of being a headlining solo act in larger rooms. Too much of her set was given over to a Michael Jackson medley, and sometimes she ceded whole songs to her backing band to sing and perform on their own. But even those moves felt like earnest spotlight-sharing, from a singer who knows how a good live band works.

Like at the Grammys, the emotional centerpiece of her set was “Rise Up,” a ballad that she said had a “design to be uplifting” but lately was resonating with people, she added, who were suffering from “depression, image issues, hopelessness.” That word — “depression” — is a rarity in pop music. Even an R&B singer like The Weeknd, whose catalog is almost entirely devoted to tales of self-medicating, barely acknowledges the psychic cost of that. 

When Day sang “Rise Up,” she didn’t pander to inspirational cliches. She sang it as an empathic admission that life takes a real toll on people. And when the crowd sang it back to her, there were probably some un-fixed mascara tears out there too.

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