Carolina Theatre, Durham
Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015
More than two decades ago, a friend gave me a bootleg cassette of Meshell Ndegeocello’s Plantation Lullabies. I had been tinkering with the bass for about six months, and her music was an affirmation, a window into myself. Here’s this little black, bald, bisexual woman endowed with genre- and gender-defiant prowess, wielding the bass like she invented it. I played that cassette until the spools refused to cooperate. With this newfound authorization to destroy the bounds of my very own construction, I also began shedding my skin. I agreed to create music however and with whomever I wanted.
The next few years found me traveling up and down the East Coast at any mention of a Meshell show. I eventually opened for her at The Lincoln Theatre with my three-piece Southern rock band. I’ve since vacillated between hip-hop, soul and rock, largely because Ndegeocello was the first to give this black girl the necessary (and oft-dimmed) green light.
Billed as “An Evening with Meshell Ndegeocello,” her performance last night at Durham’s Carolina Theatre offered similar sanction. The show marked the bassist/singer/songwriter’s third appearance in Durham in less than three years. The first and second were Duke Performances gigs that highlighted selections from Ndegeocello’s salute to North Carolina’s finest objector, Nina Simone. Ndegeocello proved a likely successor to Simone’s legacy of depth and defiance.
Last night, at the start, Ndegeocello launched into tunes from Pour Une Âme Souveraine — A Dedication to Nina Simone, accompanied by an intensely percussive unit featuring Chris Bruce on guitar, keyboardist Jebin Bruni and Abraham Rounds on drums and backing vocals. Her stage presence is less flamboyant these days, more centered and experiential. That indisputable bass technique remains; the profundity of each note still finds its way down to the belly’s bottom, where it settles into a pulsating warmth.
The nowhere-near-capacity crowd got all pentecostal holiness while witnessing to “Grace,” a dark but hopeful ballad from Ndegeocello’s 1999 album, Bitter. “Outside Your Door,” a real crate-dig for old-schoolers harkening back to Plantation Lullabies and 1993, followed.
The rest of the evening offered a steady ebb of mid-tempo grooves from Ndegeocello’s last three efforts, Comet Come to Me, Pour Une Âme Souveraine and the Joe Henry-produced Weather. Each composition highlighted the interplay of uncluttered vocals and Bruni’s tumescent keys. Bruce, along with Ndegeocello’s Fender force, created a reggae-influenced pocket exemplified on tracks like “Forget My Name” and a remake of the Whodini classic, “Friends.”
The inventiveness of artists like Meshell Ndegeocello is not only informative, it’s imperative. In a moment of cookie-cutter pop displays, personalities as richly understated as hers give music a resounding and distinct voice. Her catalog continues to grow more rebellious in this way.
To generations of artists seeking to alienate confines of genre and gender with unrelenting surety and seething sex appeal: Permission granted.