Esperanza Spalding & Anita Baker
August 22, 2012
I came into last night's show expecting more from Esperanza Spalding and less from Anita Baker. The audience was clearly prepared for something else. Last night, in what amounted to a generational battle of stage-craft and radio-friendly grooves, Baker may have held on to her title with help from the 14,000 ticket buyers at the Hollywood Bowl: what Baker lacks in innovation and funk she more than makes up for in humble charm.
Grammy-winning bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding opened the evening with her 11-piece band. The crew, which consisted of a rhythm section and a fair amount of horn players, featured a bandstand straight out of LL Cool J's touring closet. An oversized boombox corralled the swinging crew who had a few moments to shine during the hour-long set. Spalding, in a white jumpsuit, fronted on both electric bass and upright. Through it all she was a delicate presence on the mic, fluttering between guttural soul and bird-like flights.
The second tune of the set, "Hold On Me," featured an extended display of her upright bass chops; she was singing in harmony with the stringed beast. "Crowned and Kissed" featured a listen-up-girls kind of talk before evoking some serious soul from a kingly riff from the horn section, while Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species" invoked a true jazz legend. Igmar Thomas offered a dark trumpet solo which was the furthest out the evening would get.
Spalding finished with "Radio Song," a pleasurable groove that would make a fine accompaniment to an animated pinball on Sesame Street. She closed by trying to get the audience to sing along to probably one of the most complicated phrases ever presented to a crowd of picnickers. The audience seemed kind of uninterested, anticipating Baker, which made a difficult task for Spalding even harder. As the tune died out she slowly walked offstage, playing her wireless electric bass to an adequate ovation from the crowd.
After a lengthy break, Anita Baker brought the quiet storm. During her set, a projected background cycled through floating stars, glistening waters and puffy clouds. The world's largest screensaver in full effect.
Surprisingly, Baker played her biggest hit "Sweet Love" as her second tune of the set. The crowd went wild, as they would throughout the night. Much of her set sort of blurred into similar sounds that were radio-friendly and inoffensive. The drums pummeled, the synthesizers gently mimicked soft horns and the pianist over-worked the piano.
At one point, Baker thanked Spalding, referring to her as being from the 21st century. Baker herself was clearly helping the audience to relive much of the late 20th. Her voice is still strong and her visible exhaustion was endearing to a crowd that roared at virtually every song she played. She seemed downright giddy to be on the stage, offering up a Vegas-ready program to the enthusiastic crowd.
It wasn't easy for me to differentiate songs. I could have easily inserted the "Sweet Love" chorus at any point in the evening. The set was also peppered with a few guests. Tamia strutted in impossible heels to "Rapture" while Lalah Hathaway joined her for "Angel," bringing their own dose of 21st century soul.
In the end, Baker displayed the importance of showman-ship as well as a having a supportive fan-base. Spalding will inevitably be headlining the jazz series when my generation is old enough to afford the box seats and grumpy jazzbos like myself will have to resist the pull of the quiet storm in the meantime. When the day comes that I can afford a bottle of Clicquot and some tea lights, some young talented musician will open for Spalding and not get the attention she may deserve.
It's just a cycle, kid. Give it a few decades.
Personal Bias: I wanted to review this show in order to see Spalding on the big stage. Baker was someone I was going to watch due to the logistics of stacked parking.
The Crowd: People who are proud of their collection of cassettes. Plus Clint Eastwood.
Random Notebook Dump: It's kind of funny that half of the most expensive seats at the Hollywood Bowl are designed to put the audience member with their back to the stage for a proper dining experience. It's also kind of funny how many people choose to keep it that way throughout much of the night.
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