Esperanza Spalding introduces us to Emily, her alter ego

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[Donald revels in Esperanza Spalding’s new (or simply current) direction, which employs more electric instruments and a harder sound, and showcases Spalding’s musical versatility. — the Artblog editors]

Admit it: We all have an alter ego in us that needs to be let out of the bag. Esperanza Spalding’s new project, Emily’s D+Evolution, takes us into her adventurous and eccentric side with the assistance of her alter ego, Emily (which is Spalding’s middle name). This intimate show, which consisted entirely of new material from her highly-anticipated fifth studio album, took place on Sunday, May 17 at the Theatre of Living Arts.

Reclaiming the high school experience

Esperanza Spalding
Photo courtesy of Holly Andres.

A few days prior to Spalding’s show, I was thrilled to learn that Philly’s own King Britt (an alumni of Central High School and Temple University) would be opening the show. The famed DJ mixed some cool funk tunes in his 40-minute setlist, which foreshadowed the main show’s musical direction. Britt even threw in some more conventional pop tunes, such as “Lucky Star” by Madonna and “I Can’t Help It” by Michael Jackson.

When Spalding entered the stage with her band (Corey King and Nadia Washington on background vocals and keyboards, Matt Stevens on guitar, and Justin Tyson on drums), the audience didn’t see her Afro, which we loved–it was all braided up (which must be some feat!). The exceptionally gifted bassist, vocalist, and composer wore light-colored glasses and red Spandex to complete her transformation into Emily: herself as an adolescent.

Esperanza Spalding
Photo courtesy of Holly Andres.

The new music simply cannot be categorized; it is quite abstract in its construction, while displaying a canny sense of humor. I could say that the music is soulful, rock-infused funk, but even that is selling it short. Spalding’s new music starts and ends with Emily’s story. This character encourages the audience to fully be themselves and “live out loud”–to be what might be considered atypical or even awkward. One of the exciting aspects of this tour is that Spalding is still figuring out who Emily really is. This makes for in-the-moment realizations that come across in the music-making, through distinct themes that vividly illustrate each song.

Emily, everyman

The concert opened with “Good Lava,” a tune that automatically takes the viewer accustomed with Spalding’s soulful jazz offerings into a harder and denser sound with all electric instruments. I especially enjoyed the “woo hoo”s in this song’s background vocals, as they playfully alerted the audience that we were in for quite a ride.

One of the biggest progressions in the instrumentation was the near-absence of acoustic instruments throughout the evening. While Spalding has played acoustic and electric bass pretty evenly throughout her performances, most people identify with her acoustic bass-playing because of her public appearances at the White House and the Kennedy Center Honors, during which her acoustic bass prowess was spotlighted. This project allows her to fully delve into all of the harsh and rebellious, yet vibrant colors that she can express as Emily through the electric instrumentation.

Esperanza Spalding
Photo courtesy of Holly Andres.

“Funk the Fear” is an empowering anthem serving much the same purpose that “Radio Song” does on Spalding’s Radio Music Society album. The lyric “Funk the fear, live your life” encourages listeners to conquer setbacks and be themselves. The song gives Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” a run for its money, in that “Uptown Funk” is more of an homage to ’80s funk (Gap Band, Cameo), while “Funk the Fear” is wholly a tune of the time in its aggressive sound and delivery.

“Unconditional Love” was undoubtedly the show’s most captivating song. The melody beautifully showcases Spalding’s crystal-clear voice, with King and Washington harmonically holding their own. The mid-tempo jam had people around me singing along by the time her last phrase, “We could change the whole story of love,” came around.

Esperanza Spalding
Photo courtesy of Holly Andres.

The unique beauty of the concert lay in its ability to function like an experimental play. There were many moments when Spalding, King, and Washington used spoken word and subtle choreography (similar to Janelle Monae and St. Vincent) to express the character of Emily. One of the coolest aspects of the concert was seeing Spalding accompanying herself on the piano at times, with a cigar in her mouth (a la Fats Waller). Many audience members were clamoring to snap that unique shot!

The presentation of Emily’s D+Evolution was both thrilling and overwhelming. This marked one of those necessary changes in an artist’s musical journey, where ultimately everything must change. It did take a few hours after the show had ended for me to fully digest everything that I had witnessed. That is one of the challenges of live-premiering new music that hasn’t already been released in a studio version. There’s nothing to prepare you for what’s in store.

Esperanza Spalding
Photo courtesy of Holly Andres.

Spalding herself said in her encore, “I’m not the only one with an Emily in me. You can let it out, too”. That ultimately made me think: Who knows what brilliance can pour out from us when we channel our own alter egos and do the unexpected? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to unleash my alter ego, Rich.

For more of Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution tour dates, please visit her website.

Tags

arts & culture, emily's d + evolution, esperanza spalding, philadelphia, theatre of living arts

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