Bilal at the Dakota Jazz Club, 1/14/13

Bilal at the Dakota Jazz Club, 1/14/13
Photo by Sally Hedberg

Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis
Monday, January 14, 2013

The Dakota Jazz Club has something that no other venue in this city can even approach. And that is the singular ability to adapt to whatever context the performer conjures with their music. While some performances are enhanced because of their explicit nostalgia factors (ahem: the casino circuit), shows at the Dakota are so distinctive because they have this ability to cultivate a feeling of timelessness even amongst modern artists. Last night the atmosphere transported show goers to a lonely, smoke-filled corner somewhere in New York as the soulful, sexy fervor of Bilal was coaxed into the spotlight for a short but memorable performance.

Before he ever took the stage, Bilal's three-piece backing band (drums, keys/synths and bass) launched into the first of what would become serial funk-fused jams. They were a very standoffish bunch, seemingly unconcerned with their surroundings as they submit to the labor of the background noise. But I suppose one might say that this aesthetic "works" in this vein of music. Eventually Bilal emerged, appearing oddly downcast and diffident as he uncertainly eased into "Cake & Eat it Too," mumbling something about no sound check or faulty equipment and raising a few initial doubts as to how things would play out. In those first few minutes it was legitimately hard to tell if his blank delivery was a function of technology frustration or if he was just really, really stoned. As it turned out, the mic was acting strange and once fixed, he began to build positive momentum with an extraordinary cover of Stevie Wonder's "Too High" (Hey. I didn't say anything.)

Bilal's demeanor onstage presents an interesting dichotomy. His physical appearance is suave and well-styled and he's got the kind of sensual R&B falsetto that strongly suggests "let's make babies right now!" But it's almost like he's shy of his own voice because through much of the set he was hiding, whether it be with his floor gaze or closed eyes. He was never really looking you straight on. This didn't shed negative light on his performance at all: it was endearing and intriguing. And he did project a more commanding presence during powerful tracks like "Sometimes" and "Soul Sista." He was interacting with us. He was in front of us. He was charming and electric and insanely talented. But in some sense the songs he sang he was singing to himself. After all, he does possess the most intimate connection to his own music.

On the brink of the release of his 3rd official record A Love Surreal, Bilal delivered only a several tracks from the new album, the single "Back to Love," proving an upbeat, crowd pleaser. As a musician who took being deemed unmarketable by his record label in 2006 as an artistic dare, it seems that in 2013 he's back to being focused on accessibility. But since he's had time to finesse his style, the maturity of his sound is incredible and the suggestive "West Side Girl" flaunted this. His voice is an instrument that he's learned to master and watching him manipulate it with such emotion and spunk is truly a sight to behold.

He didn't play all night, to the dismay of the sold out venue. He capped it off just over an hour, coming back shortly for a soul-clapping finale of "All Matter." But in that hour, however shy it may have seemed, we got his heart on his sleeve. And when that comes through the vehicle of Bilal's music, that's sufficient to leave a much longer lasting impression.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: It's a rare thing for me to attend such an intimate R&B show and so the novelty is inevitably appealing. But it's also Bilal and his talent pretty much speaks for itself.

The crowd: the characteristic Dakota crowd (impeccably dressed people around the age of my parents exuding class and culture), some familiar KMOJ faces and a handful of outlying youngsters.

Overheard in the crowd: "Oh, I just want to take him HOME with me."

Random notebook dump: Bilal does an astounding cover of Led Zeppelin's "Since I've Been Loving You" and for the life of me I don't know why he didn't play it. I guess I'll forgive him.


Cake & Eat It Too

Too High (Stevie Wonder cover)

Back To Love


Queen Sanity


West Side Girl

Soul Sista

White Turns To Grey



All Matter

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