It was quite recently that Solange (Knowles) played two shows in Washington, D.C. at the Black Cat. Well, one show actually, as the second was canceled to make way for a late night television appearance, or, was canceled due to extreme dissatisfaction with the sound quality of the first show. Either would be merited, as Solange and friends suffered through one of the more embarrassing episodes of ineptitude that Black Cat has ever put on display. Suffice to say: it’s not cool when the lead singer’s microphone doesn’t work.
Whatever the reason behind the cancellation of that second show, she circled back to the capital and arrived on the 9:30 Club stage with much shorter hair and much better sound. Just as in that previous show, Devonté Hynes, the creative force behind her most recent record, True, again starts in back on keys before moving to the front of stage right on the oh-so-funky guitar. Her hair is now second biggest on stage, relinquishing that title to one of her two backup singers. And that is unfortunate, actually, because the previous ‘do made for some crazy-awesome effects as light struggled to penetrate her ‘fro, creating an iconic halo effect around her head that would have made the Byzantines proud. Which isn’t to say her new style isn’t helpful to her act: it bobs and weaves (ahem) as she bobs and weaves, her dance interludes eliciting shrieks from a wonderfully mixed crowd. Hipster and blipster. Howard and GW. Gay and straight. Old and young.
All are embracing smooth jams, embracing thumping bass, embracing elements of funk that at one point were found on a blaxploitation film soundtrack. But now, in 2012/2013, these sounds have been passed down through Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and are here and there and everywhere and now…they’re kind of timeless.
She tears into “Bad Girls,” a Blood Orange cover. And really, what would Solange do if Dev was singing this song that he wrote and recorded before their collaboration? She’s not going to dance for five minutes, crowd-pleasing calamity though it would be. So, she has to sing it, and she makes it her own. She’s the undisputed frontwoman on this stage, he’s the authorial talent of her new album, and each plays their role with aplomb. You could even say that their collaboration has a signature sound, blending Chinese pop inflections played in the guitar’s upper register with a wonderfully-80s bass line, resting above synthetic percussive beats on 2 and 4 and a mélange of perfectly synched instrumentation. In more than one of those songs, seven full beats are vocalized in the chorus before a solitary beat hangs in emphasis at the end. In others, this is played out with emptier spaces at the end of elongated phrases.
Another delicate Chinese pop inflection ushers in another smooth jam, soon yielding to another sexually-charged bass line. This is less 70s blaxploitation and more 80s film soundtrack (updated sensibly for the geopolitical realities of 2013). And 80s referentialism seems to be the thing lately, no? It’s no accident that the powers that be at Goldenvoice brought New Order and O.M.D. to Coachella this year, giving all the bands they’ve influenced a chance to see the original artifact up close and personal.
And Solange gets the joke. She’s the sultry singer scandalizing the early 80s prom. She’s the disco ball, reflecting and redirecting these funky rhythms all over the room. She’s the inspiration for the libidos edging ever closer on the dance floor, the reason the prom monitor must roam about, ensuring that the lascivious music doesn’t bring potential lovers too close together. (“Move apart…I need to see light between you two!”) But the schoolmarm is on an impossible mission: DJ Solange keeps that slow jam going, reading her audience’s bodies and giving them the vibe they first came to expect and now have come to need. She drops songs for the deep groove. Songs for the deep grooving. Songs for that moment in time that each generation experiences, each on its own.
But the prom ends, and the weekend of primality and newness that often follows…that ends too. “Tell me the truth, boy / am I losing you for good?” The sad lyrical reality of True‘s first single — “Losing You” — is belied by the fact that the club is in a frenzy, its diverse denizens dancing, swaying, pogo-ing. This is the apex, the moment of truth, the moment everyone will remember and the one where everyone lets it all go. This is that moment to be burned into the brain and recollected back to in thirty years; it’s about as wild a scene as can exist in a jam-packed club where movement is restricted by the physics of a capacity crowd. They dance to vocals that summon the visage of vintage Madonna (the singer, not the religious icon). They dance with the knowledge that the party is near its end. They dance with reckless abandon: Oh, hell yes…it’s DANCE-PARTY-USA.
She departs the stage, the set concluded but they — her band — they remain. This is a bit awkward, actually, but the kids scream for more, egged on by the abandoned who remain on stage. She doesn’t leave them alone for too long, though, soon returning for an encore. The Jay-Z managed songstress strokes her indie street cred with a Dirty Projectors cover (“Stillness is the Move”) and then Deloreans back into her catalog for the one remaining song that absolutely needed to be played, “Sandcastle Disco.” It’s a soulful ending to the evening, a bit disjointed after what immediately preceded it, but pleasant nonetheless. It’s an early exit into the streets after an hour and ten minutes of headliner entertainment, but the sardines stumble out into the warm evening air smiling, even with the truthful awareness that — tonight — they lost her all too soon.
Photos: Erica Bruce