|September 8, 1998|
I have never seen, nor do I expect I ever shall see, a performer who can control an audience like the legendary High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone. In the past, Dr. Simone (Yes, honey, not one, but two doctorates!) has criticized audiences for talking, drinking, not being in their seats, and stalked off the stage within five minutes if she felt that she and her art weren't being sufficiently respected. But that was not going to happen here, hell, no. It was her first East Coast concert in five years, and the faithful crammed the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, turned out in their finest attire and best manners. And from the moment she stepped onstage--swathed in a glittering gown and crown of braids, more regal than the Queen of England--they were clapping, cheering, shouting, and singing along.
With 60 in the rearview mirror, Madame Simone's voice is not the honeyed wonder it once was--though there are shining moments when it is--but her piano playing remains impassioned, flexible, and brilliant, and she was backed by a tight, intensely rhythmic four-piece band, who watched her every move and covered any flaws in the diamonds that poured from Her Excellency's throat (Yes, darling, Ambassador to the Ivory Coast). What weaknesses her voice has suffered were more than made up for by her incredible presence. How incredible? Children, Nina Simone can strut without moving. If you holler while she's trying to talk to her bandleader, she will fix you with a look that will wipe out your entire row. If she tells you she just sang at Nelson Mandela's wedding and you don't applaud, she will wave her hand in the air and you will clap until your palms bleed.
The first half of the concert was a blend of gospel, blues, and African music. What made this section--and, indeed, the whole concert--special was the audience participation. Usually a crowd can be cajoled into some half-assed sing-along or arhythmic clapping, but this must have been the most musically-inclined crowd pulled into one house any time in recent memory. They knew all the words, timing, and phrasing, and didn't need any encouragement to join in the call-and-response or backing vocals (also, given that La Simone is a "singer's singer," every so often you'd hear a remarkably good voice shining out from the audience). As far as keeping the beat, well, they could clap on the beat, they could clap on the off-beat. It was an incredible thing to hear.
The first half's highlight was "See-Line Woman," an old-school blues number; the audience joined the band's backing chant, but, when she reached down for it, Madame Simone's husky yowl drowned out the house. Then she stepped away from the piano and began parading across the stage. When she leaned over, the audience went ballistic, like a hundred strippers had just shed their pasties. When she began slowly shimmying and bumping-and-grinding, you'd have thought the place was going to explode.
The show's second half rolled out her jazz classics, offering up her biggest hit, the irresistible "My Baby Just Cares for Me," early on. From the moment her fingers bounced the intro off the keys, the years seemed to roll away like water as her voice rose sweetly throughout the hall, and a smile floated across her face whenever she gestured toward the audience to finish a line. At these moments, she still possessed the vocal gymnastics that have made her revered by so many vocalists--not necessarily an adeptness with high-flying notes, but the ability to flit from coo to holler to whisper to belt.
Her rendition of the song that kicked off her career, "I Loves You Porgy," was not as time-defying, but it gained something in the way Madame Nina twisted the song from husky, weary lament to exultant cry of joy and back again. She dedicated the song to Billie Holiday, a singer to whom she has often been compared--something she hasn't always appreciated. Only two years ago, she said, "What an insult...she was a drug addict. They only compared me to her because we were both black." But the Holiday comparison is a valid one--there's a resemblance in the contralto and rhythmic phrasing, and it was warming to see her make peace with an artist who possessed a similar talent and fierce spirit, if not the same formidable strength.
A large part of that strength has sprung from Nina Simone's activism, a demand--not a desire--to change the world that has inspired compositions such as "Young, Gifted, and Black," "Backlash Blues," and "Four Women." The audience continually hollered out requests for the latter, which she honored with full force, pounding the piano, coming on weary, dramatic, seductive, and finally, frightening, as her howl of "I'll kill the first mother I see!" rumbled throughout the hushed hall. But several minutes later, Madame Simone was cooing, "Now, I'm gonna play a sexy song," and rolling out her version of the classic, "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl"--the aging of her voice brought out more of a Bessie Smith flavor, growling and purring her pleas as her piano barrelhoused along close behind.
At the end of her set, La Simone and the band came forward, joined hands, and basked in the thunderous cheers and applause from the audience. They left the stage for a moment, then returned. Settling on her stool, she raised her hands above the keyboard and pronounced, "You know I had to play this one," and launched into a thundering "Mississippi Goddam" with the crowd stomping and "Goddam!"-ing right back at her. Afterward, she stepped to the front of the stage with the band once more, then she stood alone, giving all Newark the "black power" salute as the crowd began trickling down the aisles toward her, like tributaries to the ocean. She touched their upraised hands, shooing away the security guards that held them back.
During one of the show's few silences, a woman in the back shrieked, "I love you Nina!" and the lady beamed, "Tell me again. I need to hear that. It gets lonely up here." And we told her. The whole audience. Over and over. And, despite her legendary curmudgeonliness, by the end of the day, she loved us, too.