India.Arie & Brian Culbertson at African World Fest
It was the perfect summer evening to go out and enjoy music and culture at one of Milwaukee’s many ethnic festivals on Saturday. The African World Festival, back from a two-year hiatus, made a one-day appearance (downsized from the more traditional three days) boasting India.Arie as its impressive headliner. The bleachers at the Miller Lite Oasis stage were packed with people who were, for the most part, waiting patiently for the Grammy-winning artist’s performance at around 8:00 pm when acclaimed jazz musician Brian Culbertson was set to start. The band was not prepared, however, arriving onstage to tune instruments and set levels just before 8:00. It wasn’t until about 8:30 pm that Culbertson appeared center stage to helm the keyboard.
A good majority of the crowd seemed not to be familiar with Culbertson’s music. Despite that, the band did an admirable job of rousing their energy, starting with a few toe-tapping numbers that featuring deft piano and trombone solos by the frontman. He zipped around the stage with incredible energy, losing himself in the music with palpable passion.
The set list seemed to be an attempt to showcase everything Culbertson had done in his career thus far, which resulted in an incongruent mishmash of genres. Two vocalists backed up a largely instrumental set, chiming in on the odd refrain. At times, the smooth-voiced male vocalist (Marqueal Jordan) picked up a saxophone to duet with Culbertson’s trombone, which lent a sort of Weather Channel/smooth jazz feel to covers of Barry White and Earth, Wind and Fire. One song, “Still Here,” featured the female vocalist (Selina Albright) in a heartwarming R&B ballad that, while flawlessly executed, made me feel as though we’d transported to another show entirely. At one point during a particularly elevator-esque tune, the fest’s fireworks display went off along the lakefront, and everyone in the crowd was turned around to watch that rather than the onstage happenings.
Nevertheless, Culbertson’s band finished strong with “Everybody Get Up,” leaving the crowd buzzing in anticipation for the appearance of India.Arie. But the deejay who was entertaining between acts could only spin so many Michael Jackson hits before the crowd began to get restless, as nearly an hour after the billed start time, the headlining show still had not started.
Still, when the leading lady finally did take the stage in a fluttering pink maxi dress around 10:45 pm, she was well-received. The band launched directly into the upbeat ’01 hit “Video,” bringing the rejuvenated crowd to their feet to dance and sing along. Arie’s voice is low and sultry, and she managed the sassy spitfire lyrics with a graceful and joyous demeanor. As she drank in the audience’s appreciation for her talent, she said she wanted us to listen closely to her words, as she was singing to spread love, healing, peace and joy.
Many of her songs did fall under that category, touting a consistent theme of inspiration and self-worth. These ideas were epitomized by the second song in the lineup, “Just Do You” from her new album, Songversation. Like the first song, this one had a bouncy tempo, but with a calm joy contained in Arie’s silky-smooth voice. She danced and twirled around the stage, a visual manifestation of the delight she clearly takes from sharing her gifts. This song was followed by “I Am Not My Hair,” during which she laughed a lot and freed her long braids from their turban, leading into “Cocoa Butter,” allegedly made famous by Steve Harvey.
“Cocoa Butter” slowed things down and considerable ad libbing showed Arie’s impressive vocal range, with light and versatile high notes that deftly transitioned into rich low tones. However, the lyrical and melodic quality of this song left much to be desired, a departure from the previously uplifting tunes toward a more typical R&B formula.
At this point the band exited the stage leaving only an acoustic guitar to accompany Arie and her two backup singers during a deluge of slow, soulful, angelic ballads. The three-part harmony was divine, although at some points Arie’s voice got lost among her more pitch-adherent cohorts, Chantae Cann and Ametria Dock. Each song declared itself as an anthem for personal change, a sort of inspirational self-help book set to music. While there was nothing technically wrong with the performance itself, the large, outdoor festival venue was not conducive for such a long focus on music reminiscent of lullabies.
I was not up near the front where the diehard fans of Arie paid to sit, so I can’t speak to their potentially more intimate experience, but from my spot near the middle, I noticed quite a few audience members getting up to leave once the more well-known, fun numbers were finished. It could have been due to the particularly late start to the concert, but it also seemed that the crowd was getting restless during the slower pieces. There were long pauses between each song during which Arie would brusquely instruct the sound operator to adjust mic and earpiece levels, and at one point one of her band members vamped for a solid minute while she wandered around stage, fanning herself with a large yellow fan and tying her hair back into a bun.
Things picked up again when the group started to perform “Soul Bird Rise,” another song from her newest album. Arie undulated slowly during the instrumental breaks, fanning herself and twirling her dress back and forth. The truly remarkable point of this song, though, was when she invited Naima Adedapo, former American Idol contestant, dancer, and Milwaukee native, onstage to perform an impromptu dance to the song. The entire audience stood up from the bleachers to watch as Adedapo twisted her body around the stage in an African-inspired interpretive performance of the song. Arie took back the mic but could not sing, mesmerized as the audience was at Adedapo’s beautiful movements.
Following this surprising and beautiful interjection, the crowd regained the energy they’d lost from the beginning of the concert, and were rewarded with an exuberant performance of Arie’s hit song “Brown Skin.” After the song wrapped, many attendees began to filter out of the bleachers, despite the fact that the show was still going. I heard more than a few people say “Well, that’s really the only song I wanted to hear, so we can go now.”
The final song started out slow and low, with that same sleepy vibe that brought down the middle of the show. Arie played a jazzy flute solo midway through the piece, with impressively warm timbre on the lower notes, but poor breath support on the higher ones. For a final bit of wow factor, Arie brought her mother out onstage, who sang the last few lines of the song just as capably as her daughter.
The concert ended without any hope for an encore, partially because the majority of the crowd cleared out before the last number even started, and I think partially because of noise laws in the Milwaukee area. The concert clocked in at about a good 50 minutes, leaving much to be desired for fans who’d been waiting for hours in those rigid metal seats. Arie seemed to connect with some of her audience, particularly those sitting up close, but for those of us back in the nosebleeds, it was a bit more difficult to really grasp her vibe. Interestingly the concert was not simulcast on the projection screens adjacent to the stage, as they usually are during Summerfest performances. Because Arie is so physical in her performance, I think the lack of visual elements rendered the performance a little lackluster, a little disconnected.
In the end, it seemed that while Brian Culbertson’s performance left the audience in an energetic place, the wait for Arie’s set to begin, and the subsequent lack of energy relative to the space, rendered onlookers sleepy and indifferent. They graciously applauded her performances of her hit songs, but lost interest when the action became more introspective. I wonder if an earlier start time and a more intimate stage might be more appropriate for India.Arie, even if her caliber of artist seems to insist on a larger performance space. She is, after all, all about connection – and a large festival-style venue isn’t quite appropriate for that end.
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