There are few venues as spectacular as the Cistern, and few performers as worthy of its stage as the indomitable Dee Dee Bridgewater. Before she even took to the mic, the Memphis, Tenn. jazz singer’s presence was felt. With a cover of “Burnt Biscuits,” from her backup crew, it was all of a sudden very clear that this was not going to be your average jazz show. This was the first time Bridgewater has performed at Spoleto since 2004, and she was ready to make it noteworthy.
“I guess you could say this is my moment to be selfish,” Bridgewater told the crowd with a smile. Well versed in the art of performing jazz professionally for years, it seemed Dee Dee was ready to branch out and put together a show that represented her roots. The result of this desire was a more blues-influenced performance, based on her upcoming album, Memphis, which Bridgewater was eager to share.
“I know you might be expecting a jazz concert,” she explained, “but this is not jazz.” As exciting as that sounds, the crowd at Spoleto Festival USA 2017’s opening night didn’t seem completely ready to receive this gift.
The music was flowing, but despite the funk-infused renditions of some of the masters of the blues, much of the crowd remained awkwardly in their seats. As Bridgewater continued to proudly reference iconic names in black music, much of the audience remained silent, perhaps not completely connecting to the pivotal moments she worked to pay homage to. A distinct aspect of the performance revolved around retellings of particular formative moments throughout her childhood that inspired the tracks on her upcoming album, and the setlist she chose to share with the audience. Recollections of desegregation and the first song she heard on WDIA — the first radio station in America programmed entirely for African Americans — contextualized songs that, it appeared many in the audience couldn’t seem to understand. Music is supposed to be one of life’s great unifiers, but in a venue full of white people clapping on the half-beat, it seemed that the message was lost on some of the crowd.
In a particularly uncomfortable moment, Bridgewater asked the crowd if they recognized the iconic electric drumline opening one of her covers. “Tina!” shouted out a lonely voice in the back of the crowd. “Ella!” Rang out another. Bridgewater gracefully changed the subject, but not before a quick flash of disappointment spread across her face.
Despite any disconnects in the audience, Dee Dee encouraged even those who aren’t fans of the blues, perhaps those expecting the jazz music she is so famous for, to get down. Throughout the show, renditions of everyone from Gladys Night and the Pips to Elvis were infused with her own unique funk, and interspersed with anecdotal explanations of how and why each tune made its way to our own Charleston stage.
The standout moment came with Bridgewater’s rendition of Carla Thomas’ “Baby,” which came in the second half of the show and finally and finally got the audience up on their feet. In a moment of uncertainty in the studio, Bridgewater prayed for a sign that she was taking her career in the right direction. Mere moments later, Thomas herself walked into the session, and the pair reminisced on the years their fathers spent playing music in the summertime.
“Carla Thomas was my benediction,” proclaimed Bridgewater, and with that note the crowd finally let down their guard and faced the music. Closing the set with Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness,” everyone let loose and danced with each other, with some people even making their way up to the stage to get closer to the soulful energy Bridgewater and company were laying down. Finally, the band played a Prince tribute as the encore, wrapping up the set with “Purple Rain.”
The trouble with jazz, as the singer pointed out throughout the show, is that everyone is often afraid to get up on their feet and embrace the sound. It’s hard to give everyone that feeling, as she remarked during her set, but her foray into Memphis-style music is intended to do just that. Fortunately, rather than allow the limp crowd to get her down, Bridgewater’s insistence on encouraging everyone to dance allowed the audience glimpses into her roots and that was the true triumph of the evening.