Saturday, August 26, 2006
Ledisi: Breathe a Minute
I missed Ledisi’s recent gig at the Temple Bar, which I hear was amazing – as usual. Mr. Rahsaan Patterson showed up. As did Led’s mom, Nyra Pierce. While I was bummed about missing the show, I was even more sorry to have missed Mama Led. I first met her a few years ago backstage at the House of Blues in West Hollywood when Led opened for Soulive. The operating staff was giving Led the runaround and Ms. Pierce was in full-on mama-tigress mode. After she’d thoroughly eviscerated some HOB toady, she sat on a small sofa in the dressing room, turned to me with eyes blazing and said, “You ever have one of them days when you wanna kill something but nothing won’t die?” I was in love.
Since that time, we’ve exchanged countless emails and phone calls; she’s answered my questions about Yoruba and given me detailed instructions on how to clean spiritual (and literal) house. Like my own mother did, she has the eerie ability to read my voice and know when I’m choking back despair. She even does that shit with email. She’s been a subtext decoding fiend the last few months. And her profound sense of empathy, that bottomless compassion and soul wisdom, is part of her gift to her daughter.
On July 24th, I did catch Led at the Standard, in downtown LA. That place is awful. Trendy, hipster-mongoloid hell. Like being trapped in a moldy New Yorker short story lampooning the shallowness of Los Angeles, with everyone around you confirming the stereotypes. But its cavernous lobby was where Led had been booked for a showcase to celebrate her new deal with Verve and to perform some new material, so it’s where I went. (The album is scheduled to drop next year.)
For those who don’t know, Led is one of the best singers in the world right now, regardless of genre (whose boundaries she ignores anyway). I’ve seen big, burly grown men reduced to tears, and scowling ‘hood rats brought to smiles during her shows. She’s a throwback to Ella, Sarah, Carmen… the real deal, no-joke singers. Scatting, crooning, beat-boxing, cooing softly. An amazingly expansive but heartbreakingly tender voice. She’s handled back-up for Chaka (who’s gone on record as being a fan… no small thing) and she reminds you of La Khan in the way she just sits so comfortably in her gift. It’s otherworldly.
On this night, she was accompanied only by the absolutely brilliant guitarist Boolah. She opened with the new interlude “Been Here,” a brief spiritual / artistic anthem that showcased the smile in her voice, then moved on to her self-penned cult hit “Get Outta My Kitchen” – pure earthy sassiness, punctuated with animated arms and hand gestures. Still, you missed the band and the way she vibes off them on this song. Then she went into a sublime version of “Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue,” – just melted caramel vocals. A new song co-written with producer Steve Harvey (not the obnoxious Negro comic; the skinny white producer who’s also worked with Donnie) followed, with a dead-on hilarious impression of Anita Baker dropped in the middle of it. She introduced the next number with the words, “I luh this song…,” then went into Luther’s “My Sensitivity.” Fucked. Me. Up. For real.
When Ledisi performs, she pushes beyond herself and forces the listener to do the same. You may find yourself in places you don’t want to be, especially in public. She’s one of the few singers around with both the vocal prowess and the knowledge of how to use it who not only can take on a Luther classic, but damn near improve it. A few songs later, she performed my favorite cover she does – the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” The song just becomes something else in her hands, this primal letting of grief. Gargantuan lumps in my throat, digging fingernails in my palms in order to not lose it. Even the dour, Eastern European model/waiter with the dangerous cheekbones simply stood and let himself be rolled by the music. The set ended with “Take Time,” that Bay Area classic and Ledisi staple (which she wrote), a song about freeing your mind of the meaningless bullshit that bedevils you and finding the freedom to just be. Amazing.