Jul 14, 2005

Sweetwater Festival [Latifah, Badu, Scott]

Tuesday night I had the chance to see Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu at Jones Beach all on one bill, for the low cost of $20.00 for my ticket, plus $5.90 for TicketMASTER. I had been very excited about the show, and it didn't disappoint, save for the shorter than anticipated (and desired) individual sets. But a lot of highlights, and definitely more fodder for the blogger.

We got to the venue about 20 minutes before the listed curtain call of 7:00 PM, took in the environs of beach, sun, and water, and walked to security. I had realized that in the many shows that I'd seen at Jones Beach over the past 10 years, this was the first in which the crowd was more earth-toned than lily white. My metal shows have always been painfully mono-chromatic, and I have become obsessed with racial dynamics instead of the music. I felt more comfortable in this crowd, though it seemed that the venue itself wasn't as welcoming; the lines to get through security seemed to be far slower than, say, the Sting/Annie Lennox show that we attended last year, even though the throngs were larger in the latter.

The crowd at the concert was actually far smaller than I'd expected, and though people drifted in over the course of the evening, it was still only 65 - 70% full. Perhaps the location of the venue, distance from NYC, and virtual inaccessibility by public transportation factored into this, but I was definitely surprised. I jumped at the chance to see Badu and Jill Scott, so I don't know what others were sleeping on this one.

We missed almost all of Floetry, the opener, as we looked for drinks, our seats, and some semblance of comfort in the increasingly chilly night. The next performance was a trio, with Queen Latifah, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott doing an old song (I think) and bringing the crowd to their feet. Queen Latifah took over, bringing a great energy, heart, and dynamism that got the crowd excited. The elder of the group, the Queen also had more currency with the 30-somethings who remembered her breakout hits like "Unity" and "Ladies First". I didn't know much of Latifah's music, but I have so much respect for her as a pioneer: in her work as a woman in hip-hop, in her series "Living Single", in her performance in the musical Chicago, which gave her a nod from the Academy, in her selection as Maybelline covergirl and Curvations spokesperson, and finally, in her latest album of jazz.

The Queen was comfortable, happy to be in the NYC area, and rolled out a mix of her old skool hits and her newer stuff. She just looks like she's having fun, and I have to give her credit for going out with these ladies, who are known for their singing chops. She was confident, positive, and charming, and her old songs carried really well with the crowd. Her new stuff, which she revealed intermittently throughout the set without her trademark temerity, was more of a mixed bag. It felt like she was feeling her way around the new material, trying to fill this amphitheater on the ocean with sounds that were more personal. It was heartening to see how earnest she was, and her voice is strong and unwavering, which leads me to believe that if she continues in this direction, albums that follow could be stronger, with more variation. But the energy of these songs, no matter how much I love the sound, was hard to swallow next to her hip-hop songs. It's just very difficult to change gears that quickly for me as an audience member, so I think that at some point, she'll have to choose when she performs.

There was one clear misstep, though. The choice of reinterpretting "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas and Papas as a jazz standard, was ill-advised. The original is too well-shaped and distinct. It is too difficult to deconstruct the song and reenvision it as anything else. Which makes the work of the songstress that much more difficult as she is trying to suspend our skepticism and paint a picture of longing, across the space of the theater, and the span of 3 minutes. Though her singing was fine, it didn't work for me. But she closed out the set with a stand-up, walk through the crowd version of "Unity", and there was no way that a few hiccups could dissuade us from feeling that she'd done a great job of this performance.

Jill Scott was next, and with her opening salvo of "Golden", you knew that she was at home on the stage, a diva by nature, and absolutely in control and loving it. Jill has the mind of an improvisational genius, an ageless voice, and the flair of the spoken word poetess that she was when she first started to perform. Her tone was spot-on, her command of the music breathtaking, and her comfort a joy to watch. She was all about love at this gig, and I started to realize that I love her, but her music focuses on the subject of love more than most of the artists that i listen to. Good relief, yet you need some diversity too (especially since I'm on my quest to find more conscious music). Jill is conscious, and her positivity is really infectious, but I felt like her set list didn't reflect the full range of her lyrical prowess. Still, her performance rocked my world - she can make shit up on the fly, and it's really amazing that she can reimagine a song that already has so much life to it (like "A Long Walk") and turn it into something completely different, and yet still so beautiful. She went positively operatic on that number, and I can't even relate it to anything. She has a divine command of her chops, and I am so happy that I got to see her live in Jones Beach. I just hope that I'll get to see her again, when she headlines and has more time than the short 45 minutes that she was on.

I will always remember how I came across Jill Scott, during a car trip upstate, I tuned into my favorite radio station, WVKR (Vassar College Radio), and heard the DJ introduce "Gettin' In The Way." It was a refreshing sound, and I absolutely loved it the minute that I heard it, but couldn't remember the artists's name. I spent much friutless time trying to find it, and finally, figured out that it was Jill Scott. Quickly picked up her album and realized that the single was not a fluke, but only the tip o the iceberg. Haven't looked back since.

Set List: [1] Golden, [2] The Way, [3] Whatever, [4] Cross My Mind, [5] Do You Remember, [6] Gettin' In The Way, [7] He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat),
[8] A Long Walk

Thirty minutes after Ms. Scott left the stage, Erykah Badu's band, led by a fabulous flautist started a great jam, and Badu came on. I've liked Badu's stuff since Baduizm, having gotten into it from the first single, "On and On", the video of which was in heavy rotation on MTV for about 2 months. Her first album was good, and I got Mama's Gun quite late, but it was fantastic, absolutely a gem of an album, and I felt, more developed than the first. But it was Worldwide Underground, the most recent disc (which is actually billed as an EP, though it clocks in at more than 40 minutes), which is the most revealing of Badu's ability to transcend the "neo-soul" mania that swept her, Maxwell, Macy Gray, D'Angelo, and a bunch of others under the same rug. WU is one park funk, one part soul, and one part crazy, improvisational MUSIC, music that we should be dancing to - exploring the world to - loving to - living to. It's not revolutionary, but it feels like it has broken with the confines of traditional song structure.

Back to the show. Badu took the stage, and immediately showed us a different stage presence from what we'd seen with the other women. She was confident, but in the zone with her music, and in control of all elements, from the band to the singers. She was intense, driven, and not at all mopey, which, I have to admit, is a bit of what I was expecting. She had command of her singing in a way different from Scott: she has chops, but she has something else driving her, and I could feel the Brooklyn boheme/gangsta, the Black August Collective activist, the soul diva all come together in one amazing package.

Early in the set, she started "Next Lifetime" and stopped within a minute, telling the band, the audience and everyone else that she wasn't feeling it. She must not have felt it all night, as she didn't revisit the song during the rest of the set. She broke down "Danger", explained what the line "brother's got a complex occupation" means - that it was about the dope game, and what was happening to people as a result of the police state that we live in. She got so into the moment, so into the performance, that after the last note faded and the lights shut off, she spoke crisply into the microphone. "Fuck the police." So powerful to hear from her, an artist spoken in the same breath as someone like India.Arie.

Badu was like a soulful, conscious version of Bjork - ecclectic, eccentric, yet still and always in control. Badu was the star of this night for me - and I can't imagine that her shows are at all the same night after night. I would see her again in a heartbeat.

Set List: [1] Green Eyes, [2] Cleva, [3] Otherside of the Game, [4] Danger, [5] ...And On & On, [6] Woo, [7] Bag Lady, [8] Back in The Day ,
[9] Shining Star (with Queen Latifah and Jill Scott)

They closed out with another song together, Shining Star, which went over really well (and devolved into a beatbox session in which Badu showed her street cred, and Scott laughed at herself for being a poetess, but not an MC). I have to admit, I was hoping for more recognition of the crossovers that the different artists have had over the years, from Latifah guesting on Badu's "Love of My Life Worldwide", to Badu's vocal silk on "You Got Me", written by Scott and tracked to perfection by the Roots. But it was a little wishful, and may have been too contrived (though this line of thought reminds me of the medley that Nelly Furtado did in which she paid homage to her many collaborations with diverse folks in the past 3 years).

Between Latifah, Scott, and Badu, you realize that there are a lot of other singers out there who couldn't do half of what they can, and there are a lot of singers out there who are getting compared to them but shouldn't be. These are artists, and it made me feel really wonderful to know that there are some folks who I can listen to as they create art, who will be on par with some of the greatest over time, if they continue what they have been doing. This show was a special celebration of that fact.


Ms. World said...

I'm screaming now! I love Erykah & Jill! I haven't seen them in concert yet but I have a great respect for them & their art. I also like what they represent as African-American musical artists. Scott is an African-American woman who loves herself and can't be f*cked with which is what I'm going for in my life. Badu is the wild, bohemian, conscious but all over the place artist. I'm only tripping off of this because they only non-Black people who I know who know of their music are gay men or British Chinese blokes into Black American music.

Rage said...

Let me tell you - it was a diverse crowd, and I've been pushing Jill on so many people. Badu was on a whole different level. I was so happy to be there.