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Celebrating Nina Simone: Meshell Ndegeocello’s tribute captivates World Cafe Live at the Queen

Meshell Ndegeocello | Photo by Chris Sikich | countfeed.tumblr.com
Meshell Ndegeocello | Photo by Chris Sikich | countfeed.tumblr.com

Meshell Ndegeocello wants to share her love for the music of Nina Simone with anyone inclined to listen. Those in attendance at World Café Live at The Queen in Wilmington on Wednesday night experienced Ndegeocello’s passion for Simone in a wonderfully brisk 90-minute set.

Ndegeocello’s rich soulful voice and booming bass propelled the nearly sold-out crowd through the Simone songbook that Ndegeocello performed on the 2012 release Pour une Ame Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone. From the highs of “Feeling Good” to the ballad standard of “Black is the Color of My True Loves Hair,” Ndgeocello captured the essence of Simone in one moment and transformed it into something fresh and new the next.

(Read More - Sovereign Souls: Meshell Ndegeocello on interpreting and re-experiencing Nina Simone)

Before a fully seated Queen crowd that was in rapt silence, Ndegeocello and her band of guitarist Chris Bruce, keyboardist Jebin Bruni, and new drummer Abraham Rounds breathed life into Simone and her interpretations. Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” is loved best by Ndegeocello in Simone’s glorious take on it; its folk origins were barely visible in the jazzed up brilliance of Ndegeocello and Simone. Beyond Simone, Ndegeocello transformed The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” to a place beyond the imaginations of the Liverpool lads; gone was its trippiness in exchange for bold percussion and bass and guitar lines that floated one’s mind downstream.

In a show of discovery and the sublime, two moments stood out more than any other. The main set closer of “Four Women” was a knockout; Simone’s stories resonate still today and Ndegeocello brought beauty and devastation to the song with her voice and her bass. The final song of the night, Ndegeocello’s own “Oysters” from her 2011 album Weather, was just her voice and keys. Her storytelling and visuals, when matched with that of Simone and all of the songwriters beloved by Simone and Ndegeocello herself, were the perfect complement and ending to a night of musical reimagination and transcendence.

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Sovereign Souls: Meshell Ndegeocello on interpreting and re-experiencing Nina Simone

Photo via facebook.com/officialmeshell
Photo via facebook.com/officialmeshell

In retrospect, it seems obvious to link Meshell Ndegeocello with Nina Simone: both are equally adept singers and instrumentalists who straddle the jazz and R&B worlds; both are unafraid to engage with political realities; both are strengthened artistically if undermined commercially by their fierce independence. Perhaps it’s that very independence, that sense that both Simone and Ndegeocello are iconoclastic islands unto themselves, that camouflaged any linkage between the two before the release of Pour Une Âme Souveraine (For a Soverign Soul): A Dedication to Nina Simone, Ndegeocello’s 2012 tribute album.

Ndegeocello will bring her homage to Simone to World Café Live at the Queen on Wednesday, backed by guitarist Chris Bruce, keyboardist Jebin Bruni, and drummer Abraham Rounds. While she’ll also perform a few songs from her own catalogue, most of the show will focus on material written by or associated with Simone.

“I’m trying to aid people in re-experiencing her music,” Ndegeocello says. “I want people to remember the amazing music and songwriting she was capable of.”

Pour Une Âme Souveraine certainly shines a spotlight on Simone’s artistry, but with Ndegeocello’s inimitable, uncategorizable approach intact. There’s never any attempt to recreate Simone’s sound; each song is given a distinctly modern reimagining, shot through with soul, funk, jazz, gospel, and rock touches. “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” opens, driven by Bruce’s knife-edged guitar riff and Ndegeocello’s hushed, repentant vocal. It continues with a country-gospel take on Simone’s take on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” a funk rave-up “House of the Rising Sun,” a skulking “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a dark, haunting “Four Women.”

A number of guests join in the celebration: Toshi Reagon on the bright, twangy “Real Real,” Sinead O’Connor on the swaying, hypnotic “Don’t Take All Night,” Lizz Wright on the deeply-felt blues of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and Cody ChestnuTT revisiting “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The latter (written with Weldon Irvine) reflects Simone’s Civil Rights-era boldness, a determination to display her anger and frustration at a time when such outspokenness carried real consequences. “I didn’t live during the Civil Rights era,” Ndegeocello says, “so just to think that this was possible, that there was an artist out there participating in that way, is awe-inspiring. ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ should be in the same realm as certain Pete Seeger songs. It’s music to remind people of what was going on during that time.”

Despite the strong parallels between them, Ndegeocello didn’t discover Simone’s music until she was in her early 20s, shortly after she moved to New York City. Continue reading →

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Unlocked: Aaron Brown of Aaron and the Spell shares his video playlist of influences

Listening to Aaron and the Spell‘s new full-length Sing, you can tell that songwriter Aaron Brown pulls from a large pool of influences. The primary sound is soul, for sure, but there’s a lot more going on than just that. We asked Aaron put together a video playlist of artists that have shaped him as a songwriter. Here are his picks.

Wilco “Side With the Seeds”

“I am a huge fan of Wilco and was so excited to see them at the XPoNential Music Festival. They definitely seep into my music (especially this song).”

Nina Simone “I Love You Porgy”

“Maybe my favorite musician ever. This is the tune that first broke Nina to a wider audience and it happened in Philadelphia! I believe she used to live in West Philly for a time. I’m always walking Philadelphia hoping to bump into one of her relatives still living here.” Continue reading →

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