Monday, March 14, 2016

Lizz Wright in Pittsburgh

Playing right now: Julian Lage - Arclight

I haven't been inside the August Wilson Center for African American Culture since Pharoah Sanders played there over six years ago. Funding problems almost closed the place in the past couple years, but it appears to be solvent, at least for the moment. I hope so because it's a beautiful, massive building, named for an amazing Pittsburgh playwright.

Lizz Wright performed there last Saturday night. If the idea of her rich voice wasn't enough to create some opening suspense, she made a mysterious entrance, walking out of the shadows to center stage, accompanied only by Brannen Temple's drums. Once up at the mike, she started her set with "Nature Boy," bending and curving the melody line with authority. Guitarist Chris Rosser, bassist Nick D'Amato and pianist/organist Dave Cook came out next to play the rest of the set with her.

After an opening that was both dynamic and somewhat understated, Wright took things s next, for which slow for the next number, a fact that she even commented on between songs. The 75-minute set did include several down tempo songs, though luckily only a few of them seemed to slow the momentum. And even though the songs were each about five minutes long, she brought things back to life quickly. Her version of Neil Young's "Old Man" was a highlight, especially with a B3 solo by Cook. "Freedom," written by her friend Toshi Reagon, felt passionate and urgent.

Wright really got the crowd cooing when she sang a song that was going to appear on her recent Freedom and Surrender album, Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." It is a great romantic number, but it should be handled carefully, lest it take a one way ticket to Maudlinville. Wright imbued it with the right blend of romance and sensuality, giving her partial ownership of the classic.

For the final number of the set, the group went into one of the covers that did appear on the Freedom album, the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody." Their version had a down home, churchy feeling, at a tempo the song hasn't seen since Janie Joplin covered it. Wright, though, didn't turn it into the soul exorcism that Janis did, with horns and distraught wails. She kept the gospel feeling in it, which made sense after the band segued into "Surrender," the album's closing song and the one that was made to bring the house down at the end of the night. And that it did. Even without the choir that backed her on the album.

There might have been an encore, but my eight-year-old sidekick was ready to go at the point, so we decided to beat the traffic and scram.

Incidentally, Kente Arts Alliance, who presented the show, will be bringing the Sun Ra Arkestra to town in September.

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