I felt bad for rapper Charles Hamilton last Monday night as he performed the opening act for neo-soul legend Erykah Badu. Despite his high levels of energy and numerous catchy songs, there were literal groans from the audience each time he introduced a new tune near the end of his set. It wasn’t the opener’s fault; the sold-out Wilfrid Pelletier hall was simply buzzing with anticipation and impatience as all 3000 of us awaited the headliner’s arrival. When she finally walked onstage, it was to deafening applause and a spontaneous standing ovation from almost the entire crowd. Wearing baggy pants, a t-shirt, and a large grey coat, Badu was likely the most casually dressed performer this concert hall had ever seen – as soon as she opened her mouth, however, I am sure that little thought was spared for her clothes.
Indeed, as she launched into a low-key rendition of the well-known anthem 20 Feet Tall, her voice, aided in part by a healthy amount of reverb, hit us with force and resonated powerfully throughout the crowded venue. Soon after, 3 background singers came onstage to join the 7-piece band already onstage for On and On. As the drum kicked in with the infectious beat most of the crowd seemed to know well, audience members leapt to their feet, and just like that, Wilfrid Pelletier was transformed into a dance hall.
From that moment on, Badu could do no wrong. Whether singing an intimate tune accompanied solely by keys, entertaining us with the drum machine at her side between songs, or dancing to her band’s beats, she had the entire audience eating out of the palm of her hand – spectators even threw flowers at her feet more than once during the concert.
Rarely do I find that recordings fail to do justice to a singer’s voice, but this was the case with Erykah Badu. The singer made use of a remarkable range, belting out impressively high notes with apparent ease. Her voice was consistently strong, polished, and always perfectly controlled.
Though not strictly a jazz performer, Erykah Badu and her band managed to capture the carefree improvisational aspect of the style throughout the evening – on more than one occasion, her hip-hop tunes turned into an open jam, with expert solos played by the keys or bass. Badu herself even tried her hand at scatting early on in the evening, and was met with roaring cheers.
All in all, it seemed only fitting for Badu to be humbly accepting the prestigious Ella Fitzgerald award at the end of the evening. The award, which recognizes the influence of a different vocal artist at the Montreal Jazz Fest each year, has been received in the past by legends such as Bobby McFerrin and Diana Krall. After the show she had just put on, combining versatility, spontaneity and true powerhouse vocals, there could have been little doubt left in the hall that Erykah Badu deserved to join the ranks of truly great performers to have graced the Montreal Jazz Festival.