Legendary jazz-funk bassist Meshell Ndegeocello recently brought her band to Boulder Theater in support of her new album, Devil's Halo – a show totally unlike the one I expected (more on that in a minute).
It was a cold and overcast day, which in Boulder tends to seriously cut into ticket sales; but by the time local openers Sonnenblume got started, an enthusiastic but mellow audience filled half the theater. Sonnenblume's reverb drenched, drony three-piece was straight out of the Lost In Translation soundtrack, the guitar's distorted atmospheres and the lead vox/bassist's nasal dreaminess uncannily reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine. Solid drum fills rounded out a straightforward, but well-executed set...but one that seemed strangely incongruous for the funk show I was expecting.
However, Meshell Ndegeocello has made a career out of dodging expectations. Standing defiantly in front of the microphone in a hunched sportcoat and effecting a geeky, if masculine, presence, Ndegeocello took rode her band through a far more hard-rocking and less booty-shaking set than her earlier work led me to anticipate. For most of the night, she stayed fixed to the mic with a half-spoken alto voice strongly suggestive of Ani DiFranco while a hired gun took over bass-end responsibilities. The DiFranco resemblance was also noted by my friends, who pointed out her punctuated hand gestures, her alternately romantic and activist lyrics ("Tell me: Are you free? Just tryin' to make that dollar."), the counterpoint of her assertive singing and between-song girly giggles, the intentional androgyny – her speaking voice was shockingly low...
Opening with high-tempo aggressive rock, the heat didn't stay on for long, and Ndegeocello's set soon tapered into heartbreak waltzes and buzzy, atonal pseudo-funky slam poem chariots. She played bass for all of two minutes in the first six songs...and in spite of my respect for any artist who tries to redefine herself, I couldn't shake the puzzlement at seeing two bassists on stage at once, and only one playing at a time (When she took the seemingly-obligatory thirty seconds or so of bass at the end of every other song, the other guy just took a step back and muted his fretboard. I've seen amazing things achieved with two bassists at once, and don't easily suffer a band's "tambourine player," so I couldn't help but wonder, "Can't she sing and play bass at the same time, like Erika Forster of Sonnenblume? Her openers showed her up.")
In spite of my bemusement, the band and music were really quite good, and I'd have enjoyed the solid-but-unoriginal fuzzrock balladry if I hadn't come expecting her trademark virtuoso bass. Her guitarist's over-the-top FX, and the wild grooves laid down by an eminently talented drummer and keyboardist, were captivating even when Ndegeocello's bassist demeanor didn't quite fill "front-man" boots. The melodies orbited in small circles around Björkesque minor triads, the soulfulness was thick, and she was a gracious performer (thanking staff and openers, complimenting the town). An hour into the show, I finally got my kicks when she and the guitarist let the rest of the band duck out and played a chill but painfully brief duet.
Then again, it was a $30 ticket, and the packed house that showed for the beginning of her set had thinned again to less than half by the time the show was over. I got the feeling I wasn't the only one disappointed by Ndegeocello's decision not to merely take on additional responsibilities with her music, but drop the old ones. My recommendation to anyone interested in Devil's Halo: forget it's a Meshell Ndegeocello album, and you'll probably like it quite a bit.