Pop music review: Meshell Ndegeocello shows power, versatility
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The singer-musician and her stellar band range far, wide and deep at the El Rey.
As the final notes faded at the end of Meshell Ndegeocello’s plaintive, mesmerizing performance of ‘Grace’ at the El Rey theater Friday, a woman’s voice rose above the hushed crowd with a heartfelt ‘thank you.’
Her words were immediately echoed and amplified by the sellout crowd in what turned out to be a night of circular gratitude. The singer-songwriter-bassist professed hers from the stage, while adoring fans yelled, sang and wailed theirs back.
Opening her set with a simmering cover of Prince’s ‘Lady Cab Driver,’ Ndegeocello and her band -- Deantoni Parks, drums; Gabe Noel, cello; Chris Bruce, guitar; Jebin Bruni, keyboards -- went on to create a soundscape that included funk, new wave, classic R&B, country, and punk.
The jittery bass line of ‘Dirty World,’ the lead single off Ndegeocello’s Joe Henry-produced new CD, ‘Weather,’ inspired the crowd to raise their hands and wave furiously while the slinky, muscular revamp of ‘Satisfy’ set hips and shoulders swaying. The purposefulness of the band was driven home on tunes such as ‘Lola,’ which slowly evolved into a guitar-drenched wall of sound in which Parks’ furious, propulsive drumming reached religious fervor.
But then there were those moments when Ndegeocello’s voice was front and center. On the lovely, sparse ‘Oysters’ -- just keyboard and soft guitar backing -- her smoky voice took on the effect of a serrated whisper as she sang, ‘Everybody always talking about changing the world / The world ain’t ever gonna change / But you can always change in front of me.’ It wasn’t just the range of styles and influences showcased that was impressive, however; cross-genre cut and paste is now a standard exercise for would-be renaissance artists. It was the artfulness with which all of it was integrated.
But even more, it was the way Meshell & Co. used silence and the space between notes to emphasize emotional truths being conveyed, not only in her own classics (‘Outside Your Door’) but also in the exquisite lyrics of the new songs on ‘Weather.’
A fiend for art and communion, Ndegeocello has long cleared a space for all the guys onstage with her to shine. Friday night, she and her musical crew effortlessly projected old-fashioned, romantic notions of what a band is, or what civilians often imagine or wish them to be -- a union that sparks deep camaraderie and creativity.
The result on this particular evening was music that perfectly synthesized the various musical phases and experimentation Ndegeocello has undertaken over the course of her 20-year career. But what also emerged was clarity of her worldview as an artist. She’s world-weary and tender, with a vulnerability that is both her gift and her albatross. In her biting, poetic and didactic lyrics, she emerges as someone longing for a real and romantic love but intuits that it’s not the curative she wants it to be. Clearly, it was in all those contradictions that fans found themselves in her work.
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-- Ernest Hardy