Meshell Ndegeocello - El Rey Theatre - 1/6/11
Better than ... smoking weed after the first week back at work post-holiday.
Near the end of her set last night, Meshell Ndegeocello murmured, "I'm always tryin' to do something new, tryin' to look like a beginner." Not only was it an unpretentious way to assert the risk-taking and evolution that always has characterized her work, but also an inspiring, gentle reminder in the season of strict, hopeless resolutions.
To say Ndegeocello has mellowed isn't entirely accurate. After all, she can still rollick and roll as rambunctiously as she did on her biggest solo hit, "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)." But that was from her first album, Plantation Lullabies, which was released almost 20 years ago. She was in her early 20s, fresh off her hometown of Washington, D.C.'s go-go circuit. She had a few demons and a lot of weird accents, apostrophes, and capitalization in her name.
Her latest album, Weather, is no less gorgeous than any other record in her catalogue. Yet it simmers in a different way than the brashness of her brilliant sophomore effort, the concept album Peace Beyond Passion, or the extraterrestrial lushness of Comfort Woman.
In Weather, Ndegeocello further experiments with a sort of folky funk, stirring together ingredients that, on paper, don't seem to work. Lyrics that seem written as she stared out at a softly drizzling rain in "Object in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" contrast with the blazing declaration that bursts through in "Rapid Fire." Her distinct, blunt voice breathes sexily, "Who's your daddy?" before she answers herself sweetly, "You are," in "Petite Mort."
Live, she navigates that tempest of change easily. She's supremely comfortable onstage. Wearing jeans, a long-sleeved black sweater, and red-rimmed sunglasses, she slid through a set that began to feel like a spell. In "Grace," her voice low and hushed, she strummed her bass so delicately it was as if she were singing a baby to sleep. By the time she and her excellent band played an almost chopped-n-screwed version of the irresistibly sensual "Outside Your Door," the audience was damn near hypnotized.