Soon after she eased on the Powell Hall stage signifying the posh elegance often associated with a night at the Symphony, Grammy-nominated soul singer Ledisi thanked the audience for being their “whole, true self” to Powell Hall.
They shouted, they sang along and verbally encouraged Ledisi as the performance went on. The respectability politics typically associated with classical music audience was not the vibe Friday night, despite the 100-plus orchestra and conductor Kevin McBeth behind. This night at the symphony was an Evening With Ledisi.
She responded to her audience in kind. “I’m gonna be my complete self,” Ledisi said after starting the show with the culminating verse of “Four Women,” Nina Simone’s jazz classic. “I’m gonna cut up.”
She did as she promised over the hour-plus show. Her vocals were top-notch as usual as she sang a set that was comprised of mostly her own music, with a few jazz standards and a Stevie Wonder ballad blended in.
Over the past two decades, Ledisi has established herself as one of the premiere soul R&B voices. Her climb has been slow and steady – and has earned her 12 Grammy Award nominations along the way. She has a reputation among music lovers and musicians, with a dedicated and engaged fan base. She isn’t to the point where, like some of the other non-classical artists who have graced the stage recently accompanied by the St. Louis Symphony, she can fill Powell Hall on name recognition alone. But she surely earned new fans who took a risk based on the Symphony’s reputation for curating splendidly blended popular and the classical musical experiences to spend a night with her at the Symphony.
Ledisi originals “I Blame You” and “Higher Than This” introduced the audience to how her music would sound with orchestral support. The performance also included Ledisi’s jazz trio of musicians and two background singers. Both Ledisi and the orchestra effectively displayed their musical artistry, but the selections – particularly the songs from Ledisi’s own catalog – didn’t give much room for the St. Louis Symphony to be the boomingly beautiful orchestral body they are known for presenting.
Audiences were given an idea of what could have been with Ledisi’s soul-stirring performance of “I Put A Spell On You,” another Simone classic. But for the most part, because of the song choices, the Symphony seemed more as the background rather than a co-star.
A different set of songs – albeit probably less widely known – would have had a different outcome, such as the bluesy, hard-hitting “Hate Me” or the piano-driven “Bravo,” which was co-written by St. Louis’ own Joshua Webb – a young rising musician and producer who was tragically killed in a car accident in 2012 at the tender age of 27.
A chorus of St. Louis singers joined Ledisi on stage to perform “The Answer to Why,” a song she said was rejected for a movie soundtrack – though she didn’t specify which film. The brief collaboration of the song featured voices of the “Answer to Why” choir, along with Ledisi’s musicians and the St. Louis Symphony. Gospel, soul and classical music made for fusion that should have spilled into more of the concert.
It was one of the moments when the evening’s complete intention was realized. The duo of Simone tunes and her take on the jazz standard “Don’t Go to Strangers” that paid homage to the Chaka Khan cover were among the others.
Audiences seemed a bit underwhelmed by the finale that paid tribute to her New Orleans roots – and even more so by the fact that despite thunderous applause, there was to be no encore.
Fans and Ledisi seemed to connect most during her performance of “Alright,” one of her earlier popular tunes that is rooted in inspiration and encouragement.
She gave the audience the story behind the story – and delivered her own testimony in the process.
“My mother said, ‘You’re gonna be alright,” Ledisi said. “I said, ‘That sounds like a song.”
On the verge of calling it quits on her music career, a call from her mother served as her inspiration to keep going – and compelled her to write a song about seeing her way through life’s obstacles.
“I was sleeping on the floor when I wrote this song,” Ledisi said. “Now I’m singing it at the St. Louis Symphony.”
She almost became overwhelmed with emotion as she connected with the trajectory of her career from that part of her musical journey to the present.
“I was writing that on the floor, now here I am.”