by J.Victoria Sanders

18 November 2003


Closer Than Close


31 Dec 1969: Yoshi's — San Francisco

Oakland’s own siren is a petite woman with a huge, enchanting voice that takes ownership of the stage whether she’s singing a protest song or a ballad. Goapele’s songs embody an orchestra of sincerity, humility and sheer talent every time she approaches a microphone. Though she’s been called the Bay Area’s best-kept soul secret, her independent release, Even Closer, seems to have pushed her to a simmering national notoriety and the single of the same name has been in constant rotation on local airwaves (which is a rarity, at least in the Bay). The album itself is a journey through sizzling grooves, flirty love songs and socio-political commentary.

Her stage show is similar—but three times better. When she sings, she fills the house with her tone; when she spits knowledge a la Badu or Jill Scott, she’s not being pedantic, just passing on what she’s learned and what she’s thinking and you can take it or leave it—she just wanted to share it.

Life meditations and all, what makes Goapele a wonder to watch is not just the enormity of her talent, but the fact that she dwarfs it with enthusiasm and understated elegance. Her local fan base has watched her perform dozens, maybe hundreds of times, because she brings that rare combination to each venue. For example: she’ll sing the hell out of a song, raise her arms and rock her hips, then grin just enough that her trademark dimples duck deep into her cheeks, before another smooth note slips through her lips. Refreshingly, she’s a diva without an attitude: and the crowd loves it.

Her debut at Yoshi’s, a reputable and historic jazz venue in downtown Oakland was no different. The intimate space was sold out for two nights and four shows; filled to the brim with her avid followers, teachers and “my community,” she said with a smile, followed with a girlish thanks halfway into her 11-song set. Then her voice took over.

In a white kimono-style satin dress, with her tremendous band, The Heat, she launched into a variation of “Romantic” and “Catch 22” from her independent release, Even Closer—complete with hip-hop breaks thumped out by drummer Thomas Pridgeu with just the right amount of funky sass. Some of that energy dwindled during “Butterfly Kisses” and “Things Don’t Exist”, but it was reclaimed when she performed a flawless rendition of Sade’s “Kiss of Life”.

“Salvation,” a song she dedicated to children in Oakland and others who have died before their time “just from a lack of us either not caring or not asking for help when we need it” was accented beautifully by the addition of Joshi Marshall’s saxophone and Gavin Disbusi’s trumpet solos.

By the time her set was almost halfway over, she made sure to thank her family (they are largely responsible for creating and sustaining her blossoming career)—which was a segue into a rendition of “Soweto Blues” she performed with three of her uncles, who left South Africa in exile in 1976 and were finally on their way back home. In colorful shirts, they drummed out their celebration; but it was also clear that they were Goapele’s artistic and political inspiration from way back—the same clear pitch that makes her songs classic was evident in their voices too, and the crowd responded as enthusiastically as the whole family danced.

Goapele offered more thanks—to her dedicated and lively fans (a teenager in long, beaded cornrows stood with her arms folded on the edge of the stage at Goapele’s feet singing every word to every song for an hour and a half) then ended the show with crowd favorites, “Closer”, and “Sunshine”. By the time it all ended, the crowd resembled more of a congregation moved by a service than an upscale jazz club audience: but that’s the infectious charm of Goapele. She can move the heart, soul and body at the drop of a note—a formula that will guarantee her longevity and continued success.

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