Nona Hendryx: 7 July 2014 - New York

Nona Hendryx got unplugged and honored her classic soul group Labelle during her second sold-out engagement of 2014 at Joe's Pub.

Nona Hendryx
City: New York
Venue: Joe's Pub
Date: 2014-07-07

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.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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