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Labelle's Nona Hendryx dishes on the reunion, and defines an 'audio tutu'

January 28, 2009 |  2:33 pm
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When Labelle returns to Los Angeles on Thursday to play at the Nokia Theatre, you can be sure the crowd will be fabulous and the performance will be fierce.

Last fall, Verve Records released “Back to Now,” the long-anticipated return of the three extraordinary women who leaped from their girl-group youth into rock 'n' roll legend with a string of great albums in the 1970s and one indelible hit, “Lady Marmalade.” Made in league with old friends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and spiritual heirs Lenny Kravitz and Wyclef Jean, “Back to Now” is a strong cup of grown up rock and soul.

Labelle toured during the holiday season, thrilling the fans who made them a cult phenomenon in the 1970s and attracting newcomers who’d heard that nobody could bring it onstage the way Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Patti LaBelle could.

I checked in with Hendryx, the group’s main songwriter and most daring “sexy sexagenarian,” about how the reunion has been going. She had much to tell about their tumultuous weekend at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, what she’s been up to during their recent break, and how it feels to be back onstage with her sisters in song.

So, things did not go quite as planned at the Apollo show, I hear. The sound went out halfway through the show!

Yes. When it happened, it was very surrealistic. A storm took the power out, and we had a long intermission, and when we realized it wasn’t coming back we came out and sang a few numbers a capella, with a gospel choir.

Did you panic?

Experience does help in situations like this, because we’ve faced many situations where there wasn’t even a stage when we arrived and we still had to do the gig, or the band didn’t show up, and we still did a show. Our first few moments were like, "Wow, what’s happening?" rather than, "This is a drag. Can it be fixed? No? OK, what do we do?"

I said, "Let’s just go out there and tell people what happened and say that we can do a couple of songs." We thought that our microphones were working, at least, but by the time we got back out there even that had gone. We just had to sing really loud. We tried to get people to come down from the balconies so our voices could reach them. But they said, "Just go!" And the audience was so loving. It just felt like being in our mother’s lap.

It was nice that they stuck around.

Actually, having the sound go out gave so many of the people who were there a chance to mingle and see friends that they hadn’t seen since the last Labelle concert, decades ago. It was like a homecoming time. The bar was open; they had drinks. They talked about Labelle shows from the past. People who’d been to many of our shows were sort of holding court in the lobby. Everyone had a great time.

And you got to see how good the acoustics are at the Apollo.

We hadn’t had to [sing a capella]  in 30 or 40 years. I think the atmosphere lifted our vocals even higher. It was fine. We’ve gotten so used to electronics that at first it was like, 'This is weird.' Also, we got the choir to come out, and that helped.

You finished the show the next night, right?

That was lucky. The day after that I was leaving for Christmas vacation. We said, "We’ll just come back." And the audience came back too. I’d say it was 95% full.

How has the rest of the tour been?

Absolutely phenomenal. We didn’t have a full house in Chicago or Atlantic City -- it was  just under full -- but the crowd was just as enthusiastic and loving as in New York. And the show has gotten tighter. We’ve taken out a few things and added a couple of others, which is a good thing to do because it keeps it from getting stale.

How have you adjusted to singing in a harmony group again?

Because Patti has been on her own for so long, there’s still finding that connection,  weaving together again. My energy onstage as a solo artist is a much higher energy. I pretty much dance from the time I’m onstage until I’m off. I had to find out how to do that within Labelle.

But I think now we’re pretty much there. We’ve gotten back into the rhythm of how we perform together. It’s very kind of rubber band. It just snaps back into it.

The ballad sequence is just amazing -- I forgot what it was like to hear Patti sing and soar on song like “Come Into My Life” or “Nightbirds” or “You Turn Me On.” The audience goes completely bananas. You don’t hear people sing like that. It’s pretty amazing.”

What about the new songs, from “Back to Now”?

I guess we do enough of them. We don’t do that many. We do “Superlover,” "Without You in My Life,” “Candlelight” and “System.” That last one is great because we perform that in the Labelle tradition of what I call our “Oscar moment.” We act it out, basically. I portray John McCain, Patti’s the Obama figure and Sarah’s the undecided voter. That’s how Patti describes it. But now, of course, Patti won!

You’ve had a little time off. What have you been up to?

One thing was, I had two shows that I did with Laurie Anderson. The most recent one was a fundraiser at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They’re trying to raise $30 million to build a new building. In this climate! But we did pretty well. Laurie curated the show; it was a mixture of talents. I performed with my “audio tutu.”

"Audio tutu"? What is that?

It’s a Plexiglas skirt with my sound system built into it, and I perform. It has a lighting system; I use an iPod, a wireless headset and the tutu. There’s a little hand-held computerized sound generator that allows me to compose on the spot, and use light as well. I’m finally getting to my dream of being untethered by wires and things.

That’s pretty different than throwing down in Labelle!

They’re both very necessary, and have always been necessary for me. With Patti and Sarah, it’s almost like a circus atmosphere. Patti’s the ringmaster, the leader, and I’m the bearded lady or ... the contortionist! And Sarah is the beauty diva person. And then we have all the other people who are a part of it.

The actual performance is such a rush, in terms of that being in the moment, which is very different from my audio tutu performance. And I need both of them because the one is much more a part of my thinking and my obsession with electronics and soundscapes, as opposed to Labelle, which is much more visceral and organic and impulsive.

I know the Southland contingent of Labelle fans is viscerally charged to see you ladies perform! What can we expect?

We definitely want to bring Labelle–ism to L.A. For the people who never had a chance to see us, too, to experience what it is. It’s not what it was in the 1970s, exactly -- but it still is something that you’ve never seen anywhere else. Of course, we always look for some sort of extra surprise to bring to the stage, and we’ll try to bring something that people there will want to see.

Hmmm… Special guests? Extra-feathery costumes?

That’s under wraps.

-- Ann Powers

Labelle at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live, 800 W. Olympic Blvd. 8 p.m. Thursday. Tickets: $19.75-$29.75, without service fees.

Photo credit: Patti LaBelle, from left, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx / Getty Images

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