All words: Alan Pyke
Imagine there’s another dimension, imperceptible to humans, made up of raw energy and emotion. Now imagine you invented a device that could tap into that invisible energy, harness it, render it digestible – a prism of sorts, tapping into the unseen and shooting beams of purified emotion out at passersby. That’s the kind of sorcery Esperanza Spalding was practicing on stage at the Howard Theatre on Saturday night, a mix of emotional alchemy and white-hat witchcraft that used her basses, her 10-piece band, and her vocal box as antennae to broadcast a secret signal. This is transporting stuff.
The show kicked off at 8:20 with the band playing through the staticky station-scanning audio intro to Spalding’s wonderful 2011 album, Radio Music Society, as the chattering sell-out crowd mostly refused to get quiet. A peek of Spalding’s distinctive mane in silhouette along a backstage wall dashed any hopes of hushing the buzz, and drew shouts of “We can see you Espe!” (Foreshadowing for a show where people called out like a congregation, and who could blame them – she took us to church, albeit a secular one.) Then she finally sauntered into the lights, wearing the comfiest looking purple knee-length sweater I’ve ever seen, tickling her Fender and grinning out at us.
From there it was a two-hour journey up and down an emotional mountain range, with Esperanza as guide. It started out joyous, with the airy opening number “Us” and an unnamed tune about love and loss that featured saxophonist Bob Mover wailing out some untold personal drama. Then a string of cuts from the new record: “Smile Like That,” about bowing out of a love triangle, and “Cinammon Tree,” about “the friend you call after a breakup and they come right over even though you haven’t talked to ’em in six months because you were so busy being in love.” And then a sensual call-and-response between her bass and Jeff Galindo’s muted trombone on “Crowned and Kissed.” (When Esperanza Spalding sings “Lay your burdens down, don’t even make a sound, I’m here to love you,” you really hope your date doesn’t notice how much you want to obey.)
Her voice is clean, crystalline, like someone rattled a chandelier in just the right way, but she can take it a dozen other directions with no warning. Sometimes hushed and velvety and full of extra breath, sometimes squawking and funky, but always a clear overtone above the band. It’s unsettling, in the best possible way, to witness that voice emerging from just above where her fingers are working the bass into a lather. Seeing the rhythmic guts and airy top end of songs come pouring out of the same woman is a real trip.
But then the set took a darker turn, executed with ease even though it should have been jarring given what came before. Peering up over her left shoulder at the back riser of the horn section, Esperanza got into it with backing vocalist Chris Turner, who just wasn’t feeling right. About what? Nothing less than the state of society, the burdens of race, the killing of Trayvon Martin, the sheer unfairness of the expectations we place on black folk. Heavy freight, and made heavier with Turner’s plaintive singing, all far more eloquent than I can convey. Having set that weight down on all of us, they slowly lifted it up off the room with a stirring rendition of “Black Gold,” the standout anthem from Radio Music Society. Introducing something that heavy and then picking it all up for us really seemed to take something out of Spalding, who stood with a hand pressed to her chest and her eyes closed for a long moment afterward.
The trip to the bleaker side of reality wasn’t over though. “Land of the Free,” also off the new record, got a lengthy introduction touching on the millions of Americans in prison and promoting the Free The Slaves charity Spalding works with on incarceration issues. They blacked out the lights, projecting jail bars on the back wall while Spalding sang over a quiet organ about Cornelius Dupree being released after 30 years of imprisonment on a false conviction. “Five fifths of a man but the court only saw three.”
She steered the whole thing back out of the darkness by way of “Endangered Species,” also from the new record and adapted from a Wayne Shorter melody. She promised it would be the last of the night’s “public service announcements,” but neither the set nor the song ever felt preachy. “Endangered Species” provided her more space to stretch out her bass chops than anything else to that point, though the same was true of “Radio Song,” the opener from Radio Music Society and the final cut they played. Spalding had long since shed the long purple sweater, allowing us all to realize that this tiny bottle of woman is immensely powerful. She’s wiry and pulsating, with these little muscles in every part of her back that leap and swim past each other as she plays.
Her bass playing is immaculate, of course, and slides gracefully between functional and funky, between background and lead, between simple cores of songs and virtuoso solos. When playing the Fender, she stood perfectly straight from the shoulders down, the subtle bounces of her neck translating into wild convulsions in her huge curls. But when she picked up her upright, with roses stuck to the hip of it, she’d curl around the instrument in a downright feline manner, practically dancing with it. The contrast between the looseness in her neck and face and the sheer power in her arms and wrists and fingers as they worked that bass was breathtaking.
Think for a second about how far the strings are from the fretboard on an upright bass, and about the tension it takes to mine intricate melodies from that instrument. Then think about trying to keep that tension from bleeding into your voice. Esperanza makes that separation of effort look effortless. It’s easy to see that you’re in the presence of a special talent.
It’s also easy to see why Berklee made her a professor a few months after she graduated at age 20. She stitched the tunes together with the kind of old-soul banter that can seem staid from less adept performers, sharing the experiences and knowledge that birthed each song and carrying on conversations with saxophones and trombones. A year on from her Best New Artist Grammy, there’s nothing of the diva about her. She almost seemed more content to be just one of the band than its leader, and everything about her screams teacher (the kind you have a big crush on, who you can’t understand why she’s teaching your sorry ass instead of out in the world, though obviously Esperanza is doing both).
Comparisons to Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill are as predictable as they are insufficient. Spalding is on a different level of talent, and she’s also drawing on a different set of tools. But as with Badu and Hill, there’s something of the modern-day High Priestess about Esperanza, and the music and moods she creates are every bit as overtaking and elevating as anything you’ll experience as a listener.
And the crowd, which ranged in age from 12 to about 60, seemed to know what they’d just witnessed as the band quit the stage. The howling and applause went on for almost five minutes before she marched back out and scooped up her upright to play “Precious,” from her self-titled 2008 record, which blends a beautiful, mournful sound with unbending lyrics about picking up after a breakup. It made for a perfect conclusion to an astonishing night of music.