Live review: Meshell Ndegeocello's all-Prince show at Largo
Thursday night at Largo at the Coronet Meshell Ndegeocello played the first of a handful of West Coast concerts dedicated to the music of Prince, and her performance was so strong that it didn’t just make me wanna go home and listen to my Prince records (at least not anymore than I usually wanna do that). Rather, the show made me wanna hear what Ndegeocello might do with the dozens of Prince songs she didn’t get to: “Kiss,” “Black Sweat,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”
It’s not hard to grasp this veteran singer-bassist’s interest in one of pop’s wiliest shape-shifters: Like Prince, Ndegeocello moves freely from genre to genre; she’s also spent her career alternating between commercial success (think of her and John Mellencamp’s hit 1994 cover of “Wild Night” by Van Morrison) and creative indulgence (check out “Dance of the Infidel,” a jazzy 2005 album credited to her group the Spirit Music Jamia). Several times Thursday she mentioned how seriously certain Prince songs had affected her, even before she’d become a professional musician. As a teenager, Ndegeocello said, she played “Lady Cab Driver” so often that her mom eventually told her to stop; later in the show, she described “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” as having changed her life.
In spite (or perhaps because) of that profound connection, Ndegeocello didn’t appear beholden to Prince’s ideas about his music — or about anything else, for that matter. “It’s funny what you write about when you don’t have God,” said the longtime religious seeker following a speed-fuzz rendition of “Annie Christian,” from Prince’s politically minded “Controversy” album. She also played that record’s title track, in which Prince sings, “I wish there was no black and white / I wish there were no rules.” “You’re black,” Ndegeocello said after the song, adding, “And you might be gay.” Then she used her fingers to mime a pair of devil horns atop her head.
Accompanied by guitarist Chris Bruce, keyboardist Keefus Ciancia and drummer Deantoni Parks, Ndegeocello only occasionally stuck to Prince’s original arrangements. More often, she’d retain a single identifiable element — the slap-bass line in “Pop Life,” for instance — then adjust everything else around it. For “Little Red Corvette,” she played the verses fairly straight but introduced a fresh chord progression in the chorus. Several songs received comprehensive makeovers, including “Dirty Mind,” which the musicians reconfigured as jittery, Devo-style post-punk, and “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” presented Thursday as a lovely acoustic reverie.
For all the liberties she took, though, Ndegeocello seemed in communion with the deeper currents running through Prince’s songs: the open-ended questions about faith and romance and sex, and about the intersections between them. She closed with two moody avant-soul readings of tunes from the “Purple Rain” soundtrack: first “I Would Die 4 U,” then “Purple Rain.” As she sang both, you could hear her still making decisions about music she’d already loved for decades.
-- Mikael Wood
Photo: Meshell Ndegeocello. Credit: From Meshell Ndegeocello