Ndegeocello Channels Simone
Almost a week after the release of her newest album, Pour une âme souveraine: A Dedication To Nina Simone (Naïve), Meshell Ndegeocello captivated a full house at the Howard Theatre on Oct. 14 in her hometown of Washington, D.C. Stripped-down and soulful, the trailblazing bassist/singer/composer delivered a rousing tribute to Simone that revealed Ndegeocello’s own ingenuity in recasting the works of others into her own creations—much like how Simone did during her fascinating career.
Ever since 2009’s Devil’s Halo (Mercer Street), Ndegeocello has traded in most of her jazz-laden, hip-hop-centric funk influence from 20 years ago for a more indie-rock aesthetic. She also sang more noticeably in a hazy-head register, which gave her lyrics and melodies an even deeper sense of longing than when she’s crooning in her usual espresso-flavored alto range. With Simone’s material, Ndegeocello stayed committed to these new sonic designs, often refurbishing some tunes to the point where they were almost unrecognizable. Such was the case with the concert’s opener, “Feelin’ Good,” a tune that took on a séance sensation as Ndegeocello elongated the melody atop a dirge-like pulse.
Ndegeocello picked up the pace on “Revolution”—a song she dedicated to Vice President Joe Biden in light of his blistering debate with Paul Ryan, presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate. She anchored the composition with a jackhammer bass line that sounded more punk than folk as Chris Bruce strummed jangly guitar chords. Michael Jerome Moore’s brute drumming and Jebin Bruni’s sustained keyboard fills afforded the song a Gothic severity. That menacing tone carried over to Ndegeocello’s lacerating makeover “Be My Husband,” during which time the bassist offered insight about the song’s violent inspirations. Concertgoers, hoping for some of Ndegeocello’s funkier tendencies of yesteryear, were granted such a gift with the evocative “See Line Woman,” which best optimized her knack for propelling mesmerizing grooves.
Ndegeocello softened the vibe when the evening’s theme shifted more toward the affairs of the heart. Her bewitching retooling of “Turn Me On” was one of the show’s high points as she and the ensemble imbued the melody and lyrics with barrelhouse sexiness. She brought the necessary bruised romance to “Either Way I Lose” and newfound seduction to “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair.”
Two of the most soul-stirring renderings of Simone’s material came toward the end of the evening. The first was a spellbinding treatment of “Four Women,” a song that often lends itself to mawkish renditions. Ndegeocello’s version was certainly theatrical, but instead of trying to embody all of the song’s four heroines with cabaret exuberance, she intoned the verses in a slightly detached spoken-word manner, amid an ominous bass loop, shimmering guitar chords and eerie keyboard flourishes. Equally dramatic was her reading of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Ndegeocello’s risky and refreshing exploration into Simone’s canon won over the crowd completely. After a clamorous applause for an encore, she returned with only Bruce for two bracing duets on her original ballads “Grace” and “Beautiful.” Both songs appeared on her 1999 disc, Bitter (Maverick), her first notable artistic departure from the expected and perhaps the first foretelling of her potential to channel Simone’s indomitable spirit.