[1 August 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Of the countless artists who’ve held court at Joe’s Pub, Nona Hendryx is one who always returns with something different. No two shows have the exact same setlist, the same accompaniment, or even the same personality. She underlined this approach earlier in March 2014 during Nona Hendryx: Transformation, a two-part concert that featured conceptually progressive musical numbers (Nona Rewired) followed by a celebration of International Women’s Day wherein Hendryx invited several artists to duet on songs from her own catalog as well as songs by other female songwriters (Nona Revisited). Four months later, Nona Hendryx: Unplugged & Unhinged could be considered an addendum to the March shows, completing a trilogy of performances that provide a window to the heart, soul, and mind of Nona Hendryx.
Though billed as an “unplugged” show, Hendryx was joined by a number of musicians, including Etienne Stadwijk on keys, Daniel De Jesus on cello, V. Jeffrey Smith on sax, bass, and guitar, Shelley Nicole on vocals and percussion, and background vocalists Keith Fluitt, Ki Ki Hawkins, and Asa Lovechild. Singer-songwriter Adam Falcon guested on guitar while returning visitors from Hendryx’s March show included poet Liza Jessie Peterson and Boston-based vocal quartet Women of the World.
Transformation is often the motif of Hendryx’s performances, either by her introducing material that represents a new musical style or transforming established songs through new arrangements. However, transformation was this particular evening’s raison d’être. Peterson, whose spoken word pieces provided a gripping narration in between the songs, uttered the first words of the night, “Sister you’re on my mind, sister you’re one of a kind,” an homage to the history Hendryx shares with Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash. A gallery of images projected on a large screen traced Hendryx’s evolution as a member of Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles and Labelle, in addition to her various incarnations as a solo artist. “We just wanted to sing, and sing songs about living,” Peterson proclaimed before Women of the World continued with an a cappella rendition of “Down to the River to Pray”.
Hendryx brought with her a formidable body of work that crosses decades but remains current, in both the scope of her lyrics and the mutable shape of her melodies. If anything, an “unplugged” Nona Hendryx show underscores the strength of her wordplay. “I wanted to get the words across because usually my band wants to rock from the beginning,” she told the audience. “I wanted to share my lyrics without the madness that I usually bring.” The first song to benefit from a stripped-down arrangement was “A Man in a Trench Coat (Voodoo)”, which first appeared on Labelle’s Chameleon (1976). Whereas the original recording was outfitted with funk accoutrements of the day (lots of wah wah guitar and rubbery bass lines), Hendryx’s acoustic rendition revealed the gospel underpinnings of the song, particularly with Stadwijk behind the keys.
Prior to the show, there was some speculation about whether LaBelle and Dash would make an appearance at Joe’s Pub. Following “A Man in a Trench Coat”, Hendryx was handed a cell phone with LaBelle on the other line. “Hello everybody,” LaBelle said through speaker phone, apologizing for her absence. A three-minute conversation ensued before LaBelle bid adieu with the most heartfelt of compliments about her dear friend and singing sister: “To everyone listening, [Nona] is the best songwriter.”
That praise certainly rang true throughout the evening, especially on the next number, “I Believe That I’ve Finally Made It Home”. It was well worth revisiting from Labelle’s last Warner Bros. album, 1972’s Moon Shadow. Penned by Hendryx, the melody eases over the music like a soft breeze yet the lyrics sear the soul: “Good morning friends and relations / I know you thought you were being kind / When you locked up my mind / But instead / I only read / The truth in me.” Like many of Hendryx’s most penetrating compositions, “I Believe That I’ve Finally Made It Home” bridges the personal with the political while prompting the listener to think a little more critically about the world around them.
Hendryx turned to the romantic centerpiece of Chameleon with “Come Into My Life” then served up one of the evening’s most bracing musical moments, “(Can I Speak to You Before You Go to) Hollywood”. The song’s history traces back to 1973’s Pressure Cookin’, Labelle’s sole effort for RCA Records before they hit number one with “Lady Marmalade” the following year. Etienne Stadwijk rendered the music box-type melody of the introduction with a delicate touch before Hendryx sang the song’s opening line, “Have you got a minute, my friend?” The dialogue sung between Hendryx, Dash, and LaBelle on the recording was divided between Hendryx and her background vocalists onstage. The core sentiment of “Hollywood”—“Open up your eyes and see life for what it is”—was magnified as Hendryx traded lines, face-to-face, with Hawkins and Arnold. Remarkably, Keith Fluitt replicated LaBelle’s scale-defying wail on the song’s climax—“I, I believe in you, hope all your dreams come true”—while Women of the World further embellished the vocals and illuminated the lyrics.
Shifting to Labelle’s landmark Nightbirds album from 1974, Hendryx prefaced “Are You Lonely?” with a pithy observation, “Loneliness isn’t about money, things and people. It’s about you and how you feel about you.” Even in “unplugged” form, “Are You Lonely?” kept the funk quotient high, with piano, tambourine, cello, and bass generating the heat of the original recording. The Latin motif of “Gypsy Moths” brought the first half of the show to a mesmerizing peak. Tambourine in hand, Hendryx led a sequence that could only be described as vocal euphoria, with nearly everyone onstage repeating the chant “Leave your body and your mind behind and free your soul so you can …” before climaxing with the word “dance.”
The idea of transformation figured more literally in “Transformation”, Hendryx’ signature solo hit off her RCA debut, 1983’s Nona. “I’ve had a very long career that started before some people in the house were born,” she said, “but I’m still here. All of the transformations … some of them have been rough but when they’re rough, and you come out on the other side, they’re that much better.” Shelley Nicole joined Hendryx on the verse leads, with Fluitt, Hawkins, and Arnold singing the gospel-infused call-and-response (“ooh”). Hendryx had performed two versions of “Transformation” during her previous engagement at Joe’s Pub, yet this new take proved that “Transformation” can adapt to just about any kind of arrangement and remain just as potent.
Singer-songwriter Adam Falcon took the stage for “Rock This House”, the Grammy-nominated tune from Hendryx’s last RCA set, 1985’s The Heat. Falcon’s guitar heightened the rock orientation of the track as the vocalists converted the song into a gospel revival, baptizing the audience in the “River of Hendryx”. The singer then brought the set to a hush with “Keep It Confidential”, a song written by Ellen Foley, Jeff Kent, and the late Ellie Greenwich that also doubled as one Hendryx’s biggest hits during her tenure at RCA. “Now I know the glory of simply loving you,” she sang, kneeling down and singing directly into the faces of audience members. Accompanied by Stadwijk, Hendryx summoned a sense of intimacy more palpable in concert than on the recording.
The quietude of “Keep It Confidential” yielded to the stillness of another tune that debuted on Nona, “Design for Living”. Daniel De Jesus soloed on the introduction, creating an introspective, almost mournful ambience. Only the sound of a pin dropping could have punctured the silence when Hendryx sang the opening line, “I was barely breathing / You were hardly living / until now”. With just the power of her voice, she held command of the stage, her hand moving through the air as if touching an invisible electrical current.
Adam Falcon returned for “Sunshine (Woke Me Up This Morning)”, a song first released on Labelle’s Pressure Cookin’ that Falcom subsequently covered on his own Bohemian 959 in 2009. Falcon and Hendryx reprised the duet version from Falcon’s album while Shelley Nicole’s flourishes of percussion and tambourine accentuated the rhythm. Hendryx then maneuvered the evening’s cleverest sleight of hand by segueing into “I Sweat (Going through the Motions)”. On record, “Sunshine” and “I Sweat” couldn’t be more dissimilar, the former’s an acoustic soul masterpiece while the latter’s frenetic club-based beats kicked off the singer’s Art of Defense from 1984. However, in concert, Hendryx seamlessly fused the two, stripping “I Sweat” down to its rhythmic essence while still performing her patented “I’m gonna take a five-minute break” booty shake, to the delight of the audience.
Hendryx closed the evening by exploring two kinds of emotional spheres. Even before Labelle recorded “Superlover” on their 2008 reunion album Back to Now, the song had been a staple of Hendryx’s solo shows. Caressing and holding the notes against a bed of angelic background vocals, the singer’s impassioned performance at Joe’s Pub exhibited why the song has remained a highlight of her set over the years. Hendryx then brought some different textures to “Winds of Change (Mandela to Mandela)”, a song that has even greater resonance since Nelson Mandela’s passing in December 2013. V. Jeffrey Smith’s solo on saxophone captured the song’s poignancy as Hendryx reached from the depths of her soul and imbued each note with soulful ardor. The audience responded with a standing ovation, singing the closing refrain—“I want to be free”—as each musician and each vocalist quietly left the stage.
Earlier in the show, Hendryx had remarked “Being part of a group is a lifelong experience, with them or without them.” In revisiting both her solo work and the songs she wrote for Labelle, Hendryx explored the best parts of that experience. Through inspired modern interpretations, she honored her legacy with Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash, making the past wondrously alive in the present. Recasting her solo work with different musicians, Hendryx once again demonstrated that her reach spans many musical realms. Whether unplugged, unhinged, or somewhere in between, one thing is constant: the singular musical vision of Nona Hendryx is unsurpassed.