6 Oct 2009: Highline Ballroom New York
“Yeah, everyone thinks they’re so fucking special!”
It’s a startling enough phrase to hear from as cosmic a presence as Meshell Ndegeocello on “Lola”, an upbeat rock number from her new disc, Devil’s Halo. But uttered live, it’s even more surprising—as much a rallying cry for the jilted lovers in the audience as a door in the face. At one point, she polls the audience at the Highline Ballroom: “Who’s here with a special someone?” That’s nice, but for a mysterious romantic like Ndegeocello, it’s more interesting to probe the situations of those who are here alone. So it has been with Ndegeocello’s creative output: from incredible romantic pain and turmoil has come brilliant songs about love; not as much about the feeling itself, but about why it exists and what it does to the fragile human psyche.
“Some people fuck you / just to see if they like you.”
That’s another aside from a Devil’s Halo track, delivered with a smirk as she runs through the associated track, “Mass Transit” (if ever there was a perfect metaphor for casual sex, right?). Yet again, the live effect bears no bitterness. Rather, it feels like Ndegeocello is treating us audience members like adults—she respects us far too much to withhold the ugly truths, or to censor her interpretations of them.
This isn’t to suggest that Ndegeocello performs as a one-note prophet of cynical romantic longing. She’s surprisingly comfortable covering an ode to the other side of sex for sex’s sake, with Prince’s “Dirty Mind”. It sounds like such a natural progression of the evening, in fact, that it’s not until she yells out “In my daddy’s car / it’s you I really wanna drive!” that everyone becomes aware that it’s not another new track. Ndegeocello has cultivated an image of being mysteriously sensual, thus it’s a pleasant change to hear something so unabashedly crass and purely physical coming from her pipes.
On the heels of an album as starkly sepia as Halo, the stage show bends more toward psychedelic soul. Ndegeocello’s guitarist liberally sprinkles the ensemble with ethereal autowah’d strums. It’s also worth pointing out that her touring band are clearly her friends; Ndegeocello shares multiple off-mic in-jokes with her bassist. She also picks up the bass herself for a few tunes, as a pleasant, if not necessarily needed, reminder of her instrumental as well as vocal prowess.
The Highline Ballroom doubles as a restaurant and bar, such that the atmosphere teeters uneasily between jumping rock show and dinner accompaniment during opener Kudo’s in-your-face set. Ndegeocello and her band transform the place into more of a living room. With dim lighting and no spotlight, she’s visually somewhat obscured, forcing the audience in the balcony to lean in and listen extra close. The effect is remarkable to witness, as well-dressed couples interrupt their dining to cheer on Ndegeocello as she plays a stripped version of her single “Faithful”, another disarmingly sincere confession of unrequited love. “I am weak”, she croons over a softly strummed acoustic guitar, coming from the opposite end of the outwardly cynical mask she wore just a few songs ago. No matter how many times she repeats the bitter truth to herself, it seems, she can still get hurt by it.
“Don’t let me die alone.”
As she slowly pushes out that de facto chorus, off “Crying In My Beer”, it’s hard not to be personally affected. A little uncomfortable, even. There’s nothing about “’Tis better to have loved and lost” and certainly no flowery dressing to throw on Ndegeocello’s emotional wounds. She’s blaring out her deepest fear, getting right to the point of why, we hate to admit, love is a necessity. There aren’t any easy answers, and Ndegeocello and her band close the set by leaving their instruments to feed back, reflecting a genius flourish used on her recorded cover of Ready for the World’s “Love You Down”. After a show so beautiful and emotionally intense, ending with a noise dissolve only seems right.