Angela Johnson sported a big, swirly letter “S” on a white T-shirt underneath her black vest. You couldn’t see it, but it was there. As soul music’s “Superwoman,” she is here to save us all from mediocrity. That’s what two standing-room-only crowds discovered at the Blue Note on the occasion of Angela Johnson’s CD release for It’s Personal, her fourth solo studio project on Purpose Records.
Puncturing the quiet inside the world-famous West Village jazz club in Manhattan, Angela Johnson and her band opened the first of two high-energy sets with a cover of “You Got the Love”. For the first time since fronting Cooly’s Hot Box with her former co-conspirator John-Christian Urich, Angela Johnson stood center stage at the microphone, instead of behind the keyboards, to sock an audience with her inimitable soul stylings. (Save for “Cryin’ Over You”, James Spears held court on the keys.) Accompanied by her longtime backing vocalist, the formidable Lisala Beatty, Johnson got right down to the business of funk and soul on the Rufus & Chaka Khan classic. “Did we wake you up now?” she asked the audience, a twinkle in her eye emanating from underneath her stylishly tilted hat.
After exhibiting her vocal artillery on “Be Myself”, which Johnson transformed from the sparks of the recorded version into an inferno, she explained her state of mind about recording the new album. “It’s reflecting all that is going on with me today,” she said over the groove, “as a wife, mother, artist, musician. I live a crazy life but I wouldn’t change it for anything.” Johnson segued into “Days”, which she dedicated to the “ladies trying to keep it together with a smile on their face”. The swaying rhythm of the song begat an intimate glance into the day-to-day life of one of the independent soul music scene’s most original talents.
“I just came all the way from Japan and they were singing,” she exclaimed before introducing what is arguably the most indispensable track on It’s Personal, “Better”. By the end of the song, Angela Johnson need not have worried about any reticence on the audience’s behalf: a wave of voices sang the song’s refrain—“I’ve never see the sun look so much brighter”—from behind the square tabletops of the Blue Note.
The singer-songwriter-producer addressed the more danceable qualities of her recent work for those who were more acquainted with the mid-tempo orientation of her earlier albums. “This is where I am right now,” she said simply, before launching into “Hurts Like Hell”, a song that expunges hurt and pain through infectious dance rhythms. “It was hard for me to write,” Johnson confided about the song. “I’m still going through the process of losing my mother. It’s still okay to hurt.” The band’s groove was the perfect salve for any emotional pain that any person sitting at the Blue Note could have felt at that very moment.
Angela Johnson invited special guest Darien onstage for the entirety of the show’s second half. (One of the freshest male vocalists to emerge from New York in the past couple of years, Darien was selected “Best New Artist” of 2009 by the readers of SoulTracks.) The two singers conjured the simmering soul of their duet on It’s Personal, “All in Me”. The chemistry and natural interplay between Darien and Angela Johnson suggested, without exaggeration, a modern day Marvin & Tammi or Roberta & Donny.
Ever the generous headliner, Angela Johnson shone the spotlight on Darien for two solo spots. He worked all sides of the stage with “Composure” and “Love Revolution”, two key tracks from his debut, If These Walls Could Talk (2009) that emphasized the power and command, yet accessibility, of his voice. Darien then joined Lisala Beatty on backing vocals for “Cryin’ Over You”, which brought Angela Johnson to her familiar perch behind the keyboards. The three vocalists remodeled Johnson’s “All I Need” from her 2005 set, Got to Let It Go, over an undulating reggae arrangement.
Angela Johnson closed the show with a pair of non-solo album tracks. “Can’t Stop”, her collaboration with the UK-based Reel People on their Second Guess (2006) album, called to mind the house hits Johnson recorded early in her career as a member of Cooly’s Hot Box while a cover of “Got to Give It Up” illustrated how Angela Johnson continues to creatively yet respectfully breathe life into the work of soul music icons (both Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” and “Yes We Can Can” by The Pointer Sisters have been staples of her past shows). Johnson’s effervescent take on the Marvin Gaye classic bookended a 70-minute performance that proved just how much this Artist-Producer-Superwoman continues to create a new class of soul music all her own.