Liv Warfield at the Dakota, 8/28/14
"Paul McCartney got it wrong" is a hell of a way to start a song. In Liv Warfield's "Blackbird," her bird is less of a tragic symbol and more of an irrepressible individual. Her whole band, also called Blackbird, settled into a simple but powerful blues groove. They were joined by the full strength of the horns from Prince's New Power Generation. The rhythm smoked, fueled by the fire of the scorching guitar work from Ryan Waters. "I'm just a black--" Warfield started to sing, and then the band and the Dakota fell dead silent.
Warfield coolly surveyed the crowd, raised her hands above her head, and in a well-practiced motion, moved her arms up and down like wings twice. Very few performers have the presence to make a gesture that broad look effortlessly cool, and she's one of them. The band exploded back with full force as she finished the phrase, ending the second half of the set in a wash of brass. It was theatrical, spontaneous, and powerful, and above all a display of musical skill, much like the night as a whole.
To get this out of the way: there were a lot of people at this show, including myself, who expected to see Prince. The suspicion wasn't entirely unwarranted. Warfield first worked with our patron saint of funk in 2010, singing vocals on Lotusflow3r. She credits much of her recent musical growth to her work with Prince. He was the executive producer on her most recent album, The Unexpected. There were some credible rumors floating around that the man himself was in the building to support his protégé.
At one point late in the set, Warfield said the band would be wrapping up soon, "unless there are some surprises we don't know about." During the encore, it seemed like even the folks on stage were whispering among themselves and looking toward the wings for signs of the Purple One.
Unless he played an ultra-secret show after bar close, Prince never materialized. There was a bit of disappointment in the room as the amps were unplugged and equipment stored away. A small crowd stuck around to the bitter end. It makes sense -‑ seeing a living legend in a setting as intimate as the Dakota would have been incredible. But all's well that ends well. Whatever the reason for Prince's no-show, the result was that people who might not have otherwise showed up got to see more than two hours of inspired performances. It's hard to get too upset about that.
Cell phones had to be checked at the door. Though this is hardly a needed step at every show, it was a great addition to the atmosphere of the Dakota. The improvisation-filled music of Liv Warfield and the NPG Hornz demand full attention, and it's hard to make the argument that a particularly gnarly sax solo would be improved by a glowing screen documenting it in low quality video. Being present was important, for good reason.
There's no comparison between Warfield's sound on record and the experience of seeing her perform live. She is as much an actor as she is a singer. When she sings about going crazy, there's a visceral sense of inner turmoil. When she begs her lover to come back, it feels almost voyeuristic to listen in. The emotion is there in every line, and she interacts with the audience with absolute comfort and ease.
Warfield's performance is far from pure stagecraft -- none of it would work without serious vocal talent. If her voice was affected by the stress of two shows in one night, it didn't show it. The first taste of Warfield's power came with the opener, the Prince penned, "The Unexpected." It blew the doors off the place right after they opened. She had command and subtlety too, able to rest within a rhythm that consisted of nothing but humming, bass, drums, and handclaps from the audience during "Not Givin' Up." But what most characterized the set was how live it was. Improvisation, showmanship and riffing were a near constant, but this was no jam session -- everything was always dialed in and in sync.
The performance and sartorial style of Warfield and company wouldn't have seemed too out of place in a Jazz-age nightclub -- Warfield wore a simple sequined black dress, and the horns were decked out in shimmering purple vests. Luke James, the singer-songwriter brought to stage for a short set after helping out on a cover of Al Green's "Love and Happiness," was a little more contemporary. He wore a bright bandana as a headband and a bomber jacket stiched with the irreverent slogan "Jesus Saves, I spend." In contrast to the bombast, emotion and spontaneity of Warfield's performance, James' set was, while certainly not static, a little more stable. It was well within the wheelhouse of today's R&B.
James is a pure talent showcasing a huge range and precise control. He is as comfortable operating in a high-powered falsetto as he is in a full-bodied baritone. The shifts in pitch and power among and within his tracks call to mind Usher's dynamic vocals. James has spent much of his career writing for the likes of Chris Brown and Brittney Spears, and his self-titled first studio album comes out in September -- a fact James didn't let us forget. Between most songs, he led the crowd in a call and response of his own name. It was an effective piece of tongue-in-cheek promo. But the best advertisement for his record was the music itself. He closed his set with "I Want You," his Grammy nominated single from 2011. James' piercing falsetto rode a crescendo into the central refrain, making the room seem bigger than it was.As solid as James was, the energy in the room immediately ramped up when Warfield returned to the stage. James' set had felt like a good concert, while watching Warfield and her band felt like watching an experiment in the limits of groove go wonderfully awry. The four song second half stretched easily over half an hour, and provided even more surprises than the first, like a flute skipping over the strong brass tones of "Come Back." After closing with "Blackbird," Liz and Compnay returned for a two-song encore -- though the songs themselves were merely structures for the band to play around in. The first, "Lena Blue," was less the old-fashioned jam it is on The Unexpected and more an opportunity for almost every member of the NPG horns to step up and solo. In sum, they all killed in their own ways. They made it clear that being in a jazz band is the best gig on the planet. "I decided" ended out the night. Midway through the song, Warfield sat on a chair brought out to stage, a look of affected disinterest on her face, while being pleadingly, achingly serenaded by saxophone. Other members of the horns looked on, fanning the suitor and his subject of devotion when necessary.
As the sax player fell back in one last riff, Warfield's expression shifted to a knowing smirk, and she ended the song in a call-and-response with the player. After belting one last chorus, and breaking it down one last time, the huge ensemble left the stage for good. It was 1:15 a.m., and doors for their first show of the night were at 7:00 p.m., but it wouldn't have been a surprise if they had decided to go all night.
Critic's notebook:Personal bias: I've resorted to hyperbole often in this review because it's difficult to describe how consistently excellent this show was. The crowd: The only audience I've ever seen pull off fashionable hats. Setlist: The Unexpected
Not Givin' Up
Embrace Me/Love and Happiness
Make Love to Me
Dancin' in the Dark
Long After We're Gone
I Want YouCatch Me if You Can
Why Do You Lie
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