Esperanza Spalding at the Ogden, 9/26/12
ESPERANZA SPALDING @ OGDEN THEATRE | 9/26/12
Last night's Esperanza Spalding performance was unlike most that the Ogden Theatre sees -- or has seen, for that matter. The presence of chairs (chairs!) in front of the stage was testimony to this. The Ogden is a rock club, first and foremost. If there's any doubt of that, go check out Steve Vai, Owl City, Chevelle or Garbage -- they'll all be cranking up their amps there this week and next. This was a notably more sophisticated affair. Spalding would be having none of that -- though she'd be polite in telling you so.
When the house lights went down, the ten-piece band appeared, dressed in black, and began playing the opening bit to Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady." Stage was still darkened. After a scant few seconds, the song transitioned, then again, and again, at one point playing George Michael's "Careless Whisper" and at another playing some old gospel tune.
Oh... we get it. The giant wood-and-fabric mockup of a radio on stage, if not the title of Spalding's 2012 release, Radio Music Society, indicated that the night would be dominated by this theme. The band was just playing what you might hear on a radio if you flipped through the stations. Clever.
When the stage lights went up and Spalding herself appeared -- tiny, poofball-haired and gracefully strutting across the stage in four-inch heels -- the vibe brightened considerably. "We want you to be happy, and want you to leave better than you felt when you tuned in," she said, all while effortlessly picking out syncopated patterns on the bass. She introduced the band, which included three saxes, two trumpets, a couple trombones and a stellar rhythm section.
Spalding and band performed "I Can't Help It," a Stevie Wonder-penned song that appeared on both Michael Jackson's Off the Wall album and Spalding's most recent release. Aside from showcasing the obvious influences of those two geniuses, this song was a good example of what may be deemed the Spalding style: casual, mid-tempo syncopated rhythms (at times reminiscent of West Indian soca and bachata), relying heavily on the drums and bass, with Spalding's lilting, unobtrusive vocals sporadically breaking through to bring order to the jam session. She would occasionally stop mid-lyric, bending her knees and arching her back, to just absorb what she was hearing. With eyes closed, naturally.
Spalding's banter was classic. She informed the audience, a stand-in for a love interest that has maybe been losing interest in her, that they need to have "a talk." (You know by her tone that it wouldn't be a nice talk, either.) "I noticed you've been smiling at another woman," she said, staring at hundreds of faces as though they were a single man who'd done her wrong. She and band then launched into "Smile Like That," the final song on Radio Music Society.
The band and the crowd had at least a couple things in common. Both were multigenerational and multi-ethnic, a mixed bag of race and age that fit well with the everyone-love-one-another atmosphere Spalding doubtlessly hoped to create. And for the most part, she succeeded, though the atmosphere onstage at the Ogden was that of controlled chaos, or perhaps more appropriately, planned spontaneity. Understandably, it's hard to cut loose when leading a small army of musicians. Nevertheless, you get the feeling that Spalding's jilted lover gimmick has been done more than once before.