WHERE India.Arie is concerned, the journey to enlightenment will stop at nothing – not even hair. Shorn of her customary dreadlocks since her last British appearance, the Atlanta-raised singer-songwriter told her approving fans that the hair had to go as part of “a spiritual cleansing”.
As it happens, it suited her. Enrobed in white, with yellow flowers painted on her dress, Arie seemed luminous on an otherwise unadorned stage.
There was a reason to glow: last month she received two Grammys for her second album, Voyage to India; the previous year none of her seven nominations yielded awards. “I don’t worry about no Grammy now,” she sang during a powerful reading of ‘The Creator has a Masterplan’ by the jazzman Pharoah Sanders.
This sky-high confidence was further reflected in the way Arie casually swapped between covers of soul perennials and her own compositions. That she has a band happy to follow her whims resulted in some moments of spine-tingling spontaneity. Sade’s ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ was reinvented as a flamenco soul riot. Then, armed only with an acoustic guitar, Arie went straight to the heart of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’.
It’s to Arie’s credit that among such classics her own material more than stood comparison. Strength, Courage and Wisdom was an object lesson in musical synergy. As the drummer, Forrest Robinson, held back, the audience took over the chorus, making his return with a piledriving funk rhythm all the more potent.
At times, it was easy to forget what horrors have befallen soul music in the past two decades. But Arie couldn’t be further from the overemoting of Whitney Houston and her hysterical ilk. On ‘Interested’ she merged Carole King-style introspection with a tune that carried a huge debt to the “conscious” soul music of Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. Better still was ‘Brown Skin’, which saw Shannon Sanders flooding the song’s deep, slow beats with some inspired Hammond playing.
If you had attended this concert without having heard Arie’s two albums, you might have wondered how they compare with the anything-goes conviviality of her live shows. The sad truth is that they don’t. On record, audience favourites such as ‘Beautiful Surprise’, and even her breakthrough hit ‘Video’, sound as if they were conceived in a laboratory. She could do a lot worse than make that third album a live one.
© Pete Paphides, The Times, 22 March 2003