Meshell Ndegeocello at Jazz Café, London (14/06/10) | Live Review

Despite how effortless and intrepid a musician at their best might be on a stage, don’t you sometimes just get the impression that they’re not quite being themselves? The short answer is yes, obviously – that is [for most] what makes a live performance worth watching.

A parallel opposite, when it comes to Meshell Ndegeocello and her expansive show last Monday night at London’s Jazz Café not only did the pianist, bass player and singer seem almost too herself, it was as if the veil which usually exists between artist and general human being had been burnt like an effigy at a fundamentalist demonstration and tossed in the corner.

She strolled onto the stage as if she’d come home from a hard day at work before sitting at the piano in languid fashion, as if she had come to listen to the music rather than to play it. It seemed this was a women who had mistaken a packed venue in central London for her own living room.

Nothing wrong with that of course; especially not when you have adopted a surname which means ‘free like a bird’ in Swahili – and especially not when (i) you have a sound that has continued to evolve over the course of eight studio albums, (ii) you were the first artist signed to Madonna’s Maverick label in 1993 and (iii) you have captured a multitude of fans that have been happy (if not delighted) to move with the changes.

So on Monday night, in a room full of said fans, Meshell Ndegeocello was free to do pretty much anything she wanted. Which is a good thing, considering that she does anything she wants in particularly enthralling and eclectic fashion. Beginning her performance with an electronic folk introduction which contained samples of a philosophical ‘truth talk’, by track four she had traveled back to her ’90s Neo-Soul origins, followed by audacious excursions into the kind of psychedelic rock that might usually be reserved for stadiums and an authentic blend of Punk-Soul along with early Metal infused Hip Hop beats.

Despite all of the above it was not the engaging changes in genre that truly excited but the perpetual changes in emotion. In one instant Meshell was utterly full of calm and optimism – particularly on short acoustic guitar number ‘Your Beautiful’ – while at other points her posture and her facial expressions suggested that she was brimming with enough fury to break the microphone stand in half if unchecked. By the time she performed her cult classic ‘White Girl’ and had almost brought the night to an end, Meshell had tapped into and unearthed nearly the entire spectrum of human emotion.

Whether or not her excessive, dramatic and fluctuating changes in direction and mood make for a good performance or not depend partly on the position one takes; a preference of to-the-point sets  or lengthy – almost bloated – indulgence. Monday night’s show definitely fell into the latter category.

The fans, as expected, were happy to comply. Some of them even stuck around for a two-song encore (which brought the track tally to up 17) and afterwards began to chant, “We love you Meshell” –  to which she replied, “Not if you knew me today you wouldn’t.”

She was right to disagree in a sense. How could the audience love someone so professionally temperamental? The answer is that they could because it’s highly entertaining.

–David Mensah

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