New and Old Souls, New and Old Soul
Two shows. Three artists. Infinite cool. This week, Kansas City will be treated to the full spectrum of soul music, featuring young and old, city and country, contemporary and retro.
Lianne La Havas makes music that is the equivalent of audio mercury. Sleek and fluid, shiny as chrome and ever-changing with the light. It’s slinky, silky, sexy and funky. There is some spiritual connection to vintage trip-hop heroes like Massive Attack, tempered with the smoothed-out soul of Corinne Bailey Rae.
Born in London to a Jamaican mother and Greek father, the 27-year-old La Havas melds disparate cultures and influences into music that is easily accessible and undeniably exciting. It works as background — the urbane, loping rhythms will make your head bob even as your attention is elsewhere. But it excels as foreground, music to engage with as tempos and colors change. She’s a contemporary chanteuse who moves easily between styles. Her page at AllMusic identifies Nina Simone as an influence, which might suggest too much. Lianne La Havas shares little of Ms. Simone’s turbulent brooding or confrontational righteousness. But she does share the ability to take music that might not naturally fit together — torch songs, doo-wop straight from the stoop, dreamy contemporary R&B — and make it all her own.
No less a titan than Prince recognized the spark within Lianne La Havas, and he invited her to sing on three tracks from his 2014 album “Art Official Age,” including “Clouds,” which she performed with him on “Saturday Night Live” (watch the whole thing just to bask in his genius for a while).
That fell between her 2012 debut album “Is Your Love Big Enough?” and her second LP, “Blood,” released in 2015. Both are sumptuous affairs that are highly recommended for fans of Erykah Badu or Jill Scott.
Lianne La Havas plays Kansas City on Tuesday, Sept. 27, when she opens for Leon Bridges at the Uptown Theater. While La Havas’s music is bathed in a contemporary sheen, it’s always 1963 when Leon Bridges is on stage. The 27-year-old Texan has just one album under his belt — last year’s “Coming Home” — but it was a sensation. Largely unknown when he signed to Columbia Records (perhaps the most prestigious label of all), his debut shot to the upper reaches of the charts on the strength of a sound that is twice as old as Bridges himself. This is the suave soul of Sam Cooke, with just a touch of Otis Redding’s grit in the mix. But it’s not just a genre exercise. The album features 10 first-rate songs that could stand up to almost any treatment.
Still, close your eyes and you can see the old four-track, analog studio board with glass tubes and vintage knobs. And Bridges has cultivated a visual style to match the sound, from the retro-perfect album cover to his narrowly-tailored threads. He’s a complete package, one who evokes the very best of a complicated time.
None of that would matter, though, if Bridges weren’t so gifted a performer. His voice is an instrument of pure grace, and his phrasing shows him to be a natural. There’s a wealth of humanity in his delivery. Like Cooke, he makes pop music grounded in gospel. It is righteous but not preachy. And when it’s just right, like on the album-closing “River,” it’s transcendent.
John Hiatt has been down to the river a time or two, meandering through the country, following the current of his own unpredictable career. Where Leon Bridges saw success overnight, for Hiatt it came over a couple of decades of fits and starts that saw personal and professional turmoil derail him time and again. But the man, like his music, is persistent. In the mid-1970s, he made two albums that fused rock and roll, country and folk, and it earned him tepid sales and a release from his first recording contract. He came back as a new wave troubadour (think an American Elvis Costello), and a pretty good one at that, but the result was two more albums ignored by the public and another split with a label.
In the mid-’80s, when Hiatt was in his middle 30s, he finally found his authentic voice, one that melded his various influences into something seamless. “Bring The Family” (from 1987) is one of the classic singer-songwriter efforts of the decade, one that yielded a song that later became a giant hit for Bonnie Raitt (“Thing Called Love”) and another that became one of our great secular hymns.
Hiatt spent the next three decades reeling off albums that cemented the status that he earned with “Bring The Family.” His subsequent efforts — “Slow Turning,” “Stolen Moments,” “Perfectly Good Guitar” and “The Tiki Bar Is Open,” to name a few — ensured his legacy with a blend of rock and roll, soul and country that reveals how loaded and meaningless musical labels can be. The sound is rural and Southern, and because he’s a white man, Hiatt gets lumped in with folk and country rockers. Were he black, people would call it country blues or R&B. In the end, it makes not one bit of difference.
John Hiatt will celebrate a life in song on Monday, Sept. 26, when he plays an acoustic show at Knuckleheads Saloon. It promises to be a memorable night.