Nona Hendryx: 8 March 2014 – New York

Eight laptops, more than two dozen musicians, three hours of genre-defying music, and one dynamic performer swimming through a “sea of possibilities”? It must be a Nona Hendryx show.
Nona Hendryx

Photos: Craig Bailey / Perspective Photo.

“What is your frequency?” The words pierced an orchestra of white noise. A soft glow emanated from stage lights that shone above eight laptops, a tangle of cords, and a lotus-shaped sculpture. The voice belonged to Nona Hendryx, whose warm and clear tone quelled the cacophony of assorted pops and hisses. Walking through Joe’s Pub, she punctuated her steps with more questions: “Do you have a frequency? What powers you? Is it love? Is it greed? What will it be?” The answers lingered silently in the air as Hendryx stepped onstage. “Everybody has a frequency. Everybody vibrates to something they really really really really have got to have, whether it’s good for them or bad for them. My frequency is love. Welcome to the rebirth.” And thus, Nona Hendryx: Transformation began.

Joe’s Pub has often doubled as an incubator for Hendryx’s many musical ideas, whether workshopping her rock musical Skin Diver or unveiling untested material. Nona Hendryx: Transformation was arguably her most elaborate solo undertaking yet: a two-part concert that drew from the singer-songwriter’s past and present, but mostly forecasted her future.

Nona Rewired, the first portion of the evening, explored her collaboration with Berklee College of Music, specifically the faculty and students from the school’s Electronic Production and Design Department. “We have a lot of laptops and we’re gonna use every one of them,” she told the audience. Accompanied by Dr. B. (Dr. Richard Boulanger) and a quartet of technicians, Hendryx stood like the lead singer of a rock band beamed from the future, perhaps 2719 — the same year as Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis.

However, the technology Hendryx employed during the show included some miraculous inventions of 2014. Stationed downstage right, Chris Kanopka operated a machine that drew pictures based on his brainwaves. “Everything that is happening on that sheet is from what he is thinking and what’s going on in this room,” Hendryx explained. Save for Kanopka’s motor-powered illustrations, a stillness permeated “Sea of Possibilities” while “Me and My Muse” incorporated a program that enabled Hendryx and her team to manipulate sounds from a laptop without using a mouse or any direct hand contact. “Like Tom Cruise did in that movie,” she quipped, referencing Minority Report (2002), which was set in 2054.

Over the past couple of years, Hendryx has performed in her AudioTutu, a sound system that’s outfitted around the singer’s waist and enables her to create music. At Joe’s Pub, she sported another kind of “wearable” media — a glove designed by Berklee students that allows Hendryx to control her voice. Demonstrating the interplay between the glove and her voice, she asked “Does this feel like an exhibition or a seminar?” In less capable hands, Nona Rewired might have ventured into the realm of formal presentation but Hendryx deftly navigated the technical explanations without sacrificing the theatrics of live performance. “I really do believe that this is part of the music of the future,” she said, “and just by chance, we may come in contact with another planet with the music we make.”

During the middle portion of Nona Rewired, while the laptops were cleared and new gear was loaded onto the stage, Nona shared a little more background about her relationship with Berklee, where she’s an Ambassador of Artistry in Education. “I’m thankful to Berklee for embracing me the way they do,” she said. “It’s a wonderful petri dish of music. It is important to challenge yourself.” Dr. B added that the nature of what Hendryx has been doing with his department is akin to “sound painting. There’s still an arc that we’ve composed but we play with the sound.”

Following an interlude by guest artist Be Steadwell, who accompanied herself on two songs that utilized vocal layering and beat boxing techniques, Hendryx returned to the stage with a different cast of musicians. Her gift for conjuring vivid couplets imbued “Feel the Fire Burn”, where she sang “My heart is sailing uncharted seas, a wave of love could easily, easily capsize me.” Soloing on the violin with the ferocity of a guitar player, Trev Wignall personified the fire of the song’s title. The oceanic theme continued on “I Can’t Help Swimming Against the Tide”. Vocalists Ki Ki Hawkins and Asa Lovechild joined Hendryx on the song as a vista of open sea filled a widescreen backdrop above the stage. “It’s heaven on earth,” they harmonized. A brief glimpse of a parachute falling through the sky symbolized the weightless beauty of the melody.

Hendryx and her band then “rewired” a pair of cuts from her RCA debut Nona (1983), “Design for Living” and “Transformation”. Re-arranged for 2014 (or 2719, take your pick), the lyrics of both songs reflected the experimental spirit of the evening. However, “Fear or Love” was arguably the defining moment of Nona Rewired. A trance-like beat pulsated underneath a rousing refrain, “There’s only love and there’s nothing more. Love is the key, love is.” Hendryx invited the audience to sing the song’s infectious chant. For a moment, more than 100 voices answered the singer’s first question of the evening (“What is your frequency?”) with one word, “love”.

Love was also a recurring theme throughout Nona Revisited, the second of two shows Hendryx performed at Joe’s Pub. The singer honored International Women’s Day with a roster of guest artists that celebrated songs written or popularized by female artists. Members from Women of the World, a Berklee-based ensemble, began the set with a stunning a cappella performance before Hendryx took the stage with her four-piece band. The visitor from a distant century now appeared as a rock goddess who took immediate command of Joe’s Pub, even with a simple gesture like moving a mic stand from center stage.

The “sea of possibilities” from the first set transformed into a pool of hot molten funk as Hendryx led with “Temple of Heaven”, one of the standout cuts on her latest album Mutatis Mutandis (2012). Trevor Gale (drums) and Warren McRae (bass) anchored the rhythm section while guitarist Ronny Drayton and keyboardist Etienne Stadwijk stirred their distinctive styles into a flavorful stew. Background vocalists Ki Ki Hawkins, Asa Lovechild, and Keith Fluitt added a perfect marriage of harmonies to complement Hendryx, especially during the song’s gripping bridge, wherein the singer cooled “Temple of Heaven” down before building it back up to a blaze.

The frequency of love from Nona Rewired returned with full force on “Let’s Give Love a Try”, another highlight off Mutatis Mutandis. Flexing the full range of her vocal prowess, Hendryx tore into the lyrics. She even crowned Stadwijk with her hat after a particularly smoldering solo from the keyboardist. The song’s strutting rhythm naturally lent itself to an inspired mash-up of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and “Take Me to the River”.

Hendryx shifted moods on “Winds of Change (Mandela to Mandela)”, a track that first appeared on her Female Trouble (1987) album before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison after 27 years. The song has long been a staple of Hendryx’s set but now holds even greater poignancy in the months since Mandela’s passing. Fueled by the singer’s soul-searing voice and Drayton’s guitar solo, “Winds of Change” was the emotional core of the entire evening. The idea and the hope (and promise) of freedom shaded every note. “Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Mandela,” Hendryx stated at the end.

Trevor Gale’s thunderous beat announced “Transformation”. This time, instead of recasting the song for the future, Hendryx rendered it in all its funk/rock splendor. Accentuating the groove with a kick, she moved center stage with her background singers and struck a bit of choreography that would leave the current crop of Top 40 artists withering in envy. The crowd’s ardent response underscored how “Transformation” has not only endured, untarnished, across three decades of music but evidences the currency of Hendryx’s progressive musical vision, even from 30 years ago.

For the second half of Nona Revisited, Hendryx brought a number of musical guests onstage to commemorate International Women’s Day. “Make it a day that counts,” she emphasized. Women of the World returned and rearranged “Tell Me Something Good” to scintillating effect. By no means eclipsing the memory of Chaka Khan’s iconic vocal, they nevertheless changed the dynamics of the vocals to make the song their own, even blending a little bit of “Something He Can Feel” into the mix. Bianca Chew, another member of the Berklee community, followed with an impassioned solo rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”.

However, one of the most thrilling sequences of Nona Revisited occurred when Hendryx called her friend and “musical compadre” Toshi Reagon onstage to take a page from the Labelle songbook. A few audience members called for “Lady Marmalade” before Hendryx wryly interjected, “This is not the lady who walks the street at night”. Instead, Reagon and Hendryx served up a deep cut from Labelle’s Nightbirds (1974) album. Written by Allen Toussaint, “Don’t Bring Me Down” flared on all cylinders. 40 years later, the song translated to a live context better than ever, due in no small part to the chemistry between Reagon and Hendryx.

“Don’t Bring Me Down” was the gateway to the final third of Nona Revisited, which featured a suite of extraordinary performances. Playwright/poet/actress Liza Jessie Peterson delivered a riveting spoken word piece that echoed the sentiment of “Fear or Love” from Nona Rewired — “Fear is unemployed”. Hendryx then traded lines with singer-songwriter Martha Redbone on the empowering anthem, “Women’s Bill of Rights”. Bianca Chew, Ki Ki Hawkins, and Asa “Lovechild” sang a few solos before audience members were brought to their feet and joined on the hook.

Hendryx returned for an encore and ignited Joe’s Pub with one final blast of blistering funk/rock. Her performance of “Truth’ll Set You Free”, a Mother’s Finest song that Labelle covered on Back to Now (2008), rocked Joe’s Pub to a climax. “I’m gonna testify, t-e-s-t-i-f-y”, Hendryx sang as Drayton and McRae faced off on their solos. No doubt Joyce Kennedy, the song’s co-writer and original lead vocalist, would have approved.

Nona Hendryx: Transformation witnessed an artist at peace with the past, at home in the present, and driven by all the possibilities of the future. In a career where she’s constantly “swimming against the tide”, Hendryx has indeed found her heaven on earth.