By: Zachary Kolesar
Meshell Ndegeocello is a master of demand. The mellow, colorful performance that the journeyed singer-songwriter and bassist put on display at the Wexner Center for the Arts Friday night was a showcase of control; the notion that even when something is not yours, it can be.
Known for heralding the neo-soul movement, Ndegeocello is one of the most eclectic and ambitious artists breathing. She has worked alongside the Rolling Stones, Madonna and Chaka Khan, but most importantly, she has put her heart and soul into making powerful music that reaches masses.
That was definitely the case Friday night.
Her constant attention toward the brightness of the stage lights showed that she cared about setting an ambience. Her frequent prodding to get the acoustics just right proved she wanted to curate an intimate affair. Her gratefulness and explanation of an on-stage altar in remembrance of her father was yet another of the many testimonies to her dedication as an artist.
She started off this affair right around 8:15 p.m. with a melancholy cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Suzanne.”
Ndegeocello, backed by an ensemble of drums, guitar and keys, first painted a lonely summer day with her take on “Suzanne.” Like sitting on a dock, feet dipped in water and looking out at the beyond, Ndegeocello’s takes are expansive journeys that make you observe an familiar song from a whole new perspective.
The 90-minute dulcet set inside the dark Wexner Performance Space was packed front to back for Ndegeocello’s first ever stop in Columbus. Although her smooth melodies might have paired better, as she pointed out, with seating, that did not stop the crowd from “oohing” once Ndegeocello struck the first chord and “aahing” when her piece came to culmination. While each of the night’s performances sounded cathartically on point, Ndegeocello was constantly tweaking with her ensemble’s sound. “Forgive me while I work out my spaceship,” she joked.
While Ndegeocello’s most recent work, Ventriloquism, is a rework of ‘80s and ‘90s soul and R&B treasures and a better reflection of her unique ability to twist another artist's vision, the Washington D.C.-raised musician did touch on some of her originals. On “Grace,” the closing track off of her 1999 album Bitter, Ndegeocello navigated the song with gracefully soft singing accompanied by a commanding deep baritone. Backed by a faint pitter-patter of the drums, her majesty was lighting up the Wex.
Although some may have came to see more Ndegeocello originals, the fact of the matter was that her covers were undeniably captivating. This became apparent especially when she replicated hits from Nina Simone, one of her greatest inspirations, with covers from her 10th studio album, Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone. A bit of Ndegeocello’s funky bass came out to play on “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and the full ensemble breakdown on “Real Real,” highlighted by ecstatic keys, not only lit up the Wex but started a fire.
It was not until Ndegeocello started rolling out the cuts from Ventriloquism that the crowd truly grasped the real nature of how she eschews genres. They do not exist in her book, and everything is in play. With songs by Al B. Sure!, Prince, TLC and George Clinton all appearing in the same creative space without seeming forced, it was difficult to tell to whom the song originally belonged. With the covers she performed live, it was like Ndegeocello took these songs on a cross country journey, absorbing inspiration from anyone and everywhere on the way. This became oh so apparent when Ndegeocello and the band broke out “Atomic Dog 2017” for the first time as a unit.
The true chameleon in Ndegeocello came out with her tender singing of “Atmoic Dog’s” chorus, putting out a vibrant, yet calm energy. It continued with the lovely “Nite and Day” and through a jaw-dropping, sweeping version of “Waterfalls.” The audience was not treated to much bass from Ndegeocello, but that is because she was too busy lifting the spirits of the Wex with her voice.
Not wanting to create the fake illusion of an encore, Ndegeocello launched into her last song, an original called “Good Day Bad” around 9:40 p.m. Her final performance was a culmination of the love, positivity and triumph that captivated the audience on Friday. She controlled all of these emotions—mostly through the words crafted by some of the greatest musicians to ever breathe—behind her tender voice and mean bass.
After all, Ndegeocello is also a master of artistry.