By Mike Finkelstein
Westwood, CA. On Friday night at Royce Hall, CAP UCLA presented a very attractive double bill featuring Meshell Ndegeocello and James Blood Ulmer (backed by Memphis Blood and Vernon Reid). Although the floor level of Royce Hall was mostly full and the upper level was closed, the people who came to Westwood were fired up for the show. The evening featured many covers of familiar songs done in a most appealing array of new styles.
Ndegeocello’s set was one that demanded we watch carefully. Her band was only three pieces: guitar, drums, keys, and she plays bass and piano. Often, she didn’t pick her instrument up, so as to concentrate on singing. Her music was delivered with expressive subtlety. Each player in MN’s band had an approach to their instrument and to its part in the arrangement that was just a little different than most. For this reason, they tended to gel when interpreting other people’s music.
Ndegeocello and her band put out a captivatingly sparse, layered sound. And less really is more in a space like Royce Hall, because of the great acoustics that let the sound breathe quite a bit.
Guitarist Chris Bruce took a stance facing mostly across the stage towards MN and rotated between acoustic and electric guitar. His parts were clean and provided a real shimmer to the mix. At times he used some unorthodox intervals and even some chordal trills to nice effect. He didn’t have to fill a large section of the sonic picture because keyboardist Jebin Bruni filled much of it with swirling washes of sound from a fairly simple keyboard setup. He supplied a big bottom end and his sound seemed to wash through the place like a waterfall or a fountain.
Perhaps the most intriguing guy on the stage was drummer Deantoni Parks. He was a visual presence behind a muted set of drums with the heads covered by cloth. He played sparsely to great effect, but he put body language into the dynamics of his parts, selling the performance this way. At times he would tickle the cymbals with his fingernails or tap the cymbal rims with the side of his drumstick for a muted effect. And in terms of his bottom end it seemed that for much of the evening the floor tom was driving the percussion by design.
Ndegeocello’s latest release is Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication To Nina Simone. This album supplied the bulk of the night’s program and it was fascinating to hear where MN and the band would take these songs that Nina Simone (whom MN referred to as “she”) had inspired her with.
“Real Real” was written by Simone and combined a cheerful set of chords with a whispered huskiness in MN’s vocal. It was a jewel of a performance and hearing a song like this for the first time implores a person to learn as much as possible about it.
“Either Way I Lose,” is a Van McCoy song (yep, same guy who wrote “The Hustle”) that was delivered in ‘50s style, evoking doo wop but bringing out the sweet side of Ndegeocello’s huskiness and embellishing the arrangement with bright guitar chords.
In the hands of Ndegeocello and the band, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” got a busier, funky feel, and simple tasteful embellishments from Bruce and Bruni. Set against MN’s lovely contemplative vocal the song took on a flourishing new sound. While they changed the rhythm and the melody, they left enough of the structure of the song to pull us in and listen to it morph into something new.
“Four Women,” was another one of those special performances where the song, as much as the singer, stops the world for several minutes. It’s also a Nina Simone original but Ndegeocello and her band have slowed it down and drawn out its basic motion into a hauntingly beautiful look at the lives of four women. MN’s simple but beguiling bass line is powerful in its simplicity. What a pleasure it was to take in and savor the slow ominous tone of this piece.
The show was opened by James Blood Ulmer and Memphis Blood, featuring Vernon Reid. Reid and Ulmer are a contrast in styles but they sound great together because of it. Dressed in black and white with a felt hat, Reid, who led Living Colour more than twenty years ago, is a shredder and uses a modern compressed sound. Ulmer, a longtime collaborator with Ornette Coleman, came on after the warm up jam in a bright red suit and a knit cap. Hunching over his old Gibson jazz box tuned to an open chord, he played one of the scratchier styles of guitar you’ll ever hear, dry and unprocessed as it could be.
Memphis Blood (Charles Burnham,violin, Leon Gruenbaum, keyboards, David Barnes, harmonica, Mark Peterson, bass, Aubrey Doyle, drums) featured a lot of interplay, but the blend of harmonica and violin over the organ put their stamp on many of their phrases. These guys, too, were such good players that they could take a number of ubiquitous blues and r & b tunes and rearrange them into something different and beautiful.
The Blood set-list featured songs like “Spoonful,” “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Money,” but not one of them resembled the rock versions we all know best through cultural osmosis. Chords, lead-ins, and chicken scratching fiddles were added but the lyrics were there to guide us. By customizing these songs so well, Memphis Blood gave us a glimpse of the possibilities still within them.
Friday night’s show was a good reminder of why people thrive through playing and listening to live music. You just never know when something ordinary may become something much improved and reborn with a few nice tweaks. And it sure is fun to hear it when it happens.
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