Friday, February 15, 2008

Jill Scott live: Hot, Honest and Holding It Down

Jill Scott and Raheem deVaughn live at Gibson Amphitheater, Los Angeles February 14th.

Another of my favorite things: a great live concert. Something about the connection between an artist and an audience when it's real and not manufactured has always struck me as its own undefinable magic.

The first concert I ever went to scared me to death, because I had no idea what would to expect. I was 9 years old and I went with my mother and her best friend to the Public Auditorium in Cleveland to see The Dramatics, the Stylistics, Joe Simon and the Staple Singers, who had just reached number one on the charts with 'I'll Take You There'. It was a life changing event. The electricity and excitement, the communal feeling with 10,000 other music lovers was an incredible high. I've been a committed live music fan ever since.

Quick list of 10 best shows I've ever seen:
1. Prince: Dirty Mind tour 1980 Royal Oak Theater Detroit Michigan
2. The Jacksons: Triumph tour 1981 Cincinnati Coliseum
3. David Bowie: Station to Station tour 1976 Cleveland Public Auditorium
4. Bob Marley & The Wailers: Rastaman Vibration tour 1976 Cleveland Music Hall
5. Chic: Risque tour 1980 Cleveland Front Row Theater
6. Jill Scott: Who Is Jill Scott tour 2001 House of Blues Los Angeles
7. Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Lifeboat Party tour 1983 Masonic Temple Detroit
8. Luther Vandross: The Night I Fell In Love tour 1985 Detroir Masonic Temple
9. Daryl Hall & John Oates: Bigger Than Both of Us tour 1977 Toledo Sports Arena
10. Seal: Kiss From a Rose tour: 1991 Wiltern Theater Los Angeles

Just missing the cut is D'Angelo's Voodoo rehearsal show at the House of Blues, running 3 hours, Stevie Wonder's Homecoming show in Detroit, 1982. Stevie was 2 hours late, but played for 4 hours straight. Sting's first solo tour, Bowie's Serious Moonlight tour, James Taylor's One Man Band show and on and on and on.

Last night I went to see Jill Scott for the fifth time. I saw her as mentioned earlier at the House of Blues, in her first official LA concert. She hit the stage a fully formed performer: great personality, song selection was tight, a lively band and a natural effervescence that was infectious. When she opened with 'A Long Walk' and the crowd knew every word, you could see on her face and the faces of her band that they were all surprised and elated. At the chorus, the energy of the song, the artist and crowd just elevated to a high level that was maintained until the show was over.

I saw her a few months later in Miami and her vibe was off a bit. The show was great, but she didn't seem happy, and with Jill Scott live, I think happy is the difference between a solid craftsman-like show and an inspired performance. Her live album that was recorded around that same time also feels less than stellar.

Saw her next in LA back at the House of Blues where she previewed her second studio album before it was released. A bold move for an r&b act, but she pulled it off, only reaching into her catalog for a couple of familiar tunes.

Caught her with Common at Radio City Music Hall in New York, when 'Golden' was her current single. The show was strong and she was in good spirits, buoyed by a crowd who was receptive to anything she wanted to do.

Last night's show was opened by a young male r&b vocalist, Raheem deVaughn, recently nominated for a Grammy for his latest single 'Woman'. A talented performed, deVaughn is a guy with so much energy he doesn't know what to do with it all. He had a guy onstage signing for the hearing impaired, he had a guy painting eclectic art, another guy distractingly filming him onstage with a cel phone and Raheem showered the audience with cue cards when he wasn't busy running back and forth across the stage. He wasn't bad at all, just hectic.

While watching deVaughn, I remember thinking, 'there's no one stepping into Luther Vandross' shoes when it comes to live performing'. From the very beginning, Luther had a knack of understanding what an audience wanted, even if the audience didn't know they wanted it. His shows were elegant, polished, funky and fun. Everything about a Luther Vandross show was buttoned up, but it rarely felt stiff or artificial. I did a quick mental tour of today's r&b and no one's even close to doing it like LV did.

Then came Jill. When her show opened and she arrived like royalty in a purple gown, that big ole' smile and that spectacular voice, it was all good. I've never seen her look better, she definitely had her sexy on.

Since the first time I saw her, Jill's been married and divorced, she's released two studio albums which haven't burned up the charts but have been consistent and a clear sign of an artist who's constantly striving to expand her horizons. Her fan base has remained loyal as evidenced by the nearly sold out venue populated by thousands of women who embrace her female empowerment ideas as their own.

As I watched Jill lead her crackerjack band through new arrangements of her classic tunes and tight versions of the new songs, I realized,in her own way, Jill Scott is carrying Luther's torch, whether she knows it or not. The professionalism, the intimacy with the audience, the emotional investment of each song, Jill's putting it down in a way that Luther would approve of.

Throughout the show she made reference to the challenging road she's travelled over the last few years, but she also made it clear that she's had some good times too. Watching her talk with the audience felt like listening to your cousin Pookie talking around the kitchen table, natural and homey.

Then we get to the voice. Jill Scott has one of the most impressive instruments in all of popular music, with an unmatched ability to emotionally become whatever 'character' is needed in a song.

The only flaw that I can point out was the decision to crank the audio up during 'Golden'. The music was so loud that it distorted everything, bringing an unnecessary element of irritation to an otherwise outstanding performance.

If my list went to a top 20 shows of all time, this one would probably be on it.

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