Wednesday night’s rousing and sexy Lizz Wright concert added a healthy dose of soul, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll to the otherwise formal and serious atmosphere of Spoleto. Backed by a solid and versatile quartet, the vocalist’s tremendous talent and graceful demeanor beamed from the Gaillard Auditorium stage. It was another great triumph in this year’s diverse musical series.
Wright is a young star in the blues/jazz scene. Born and raised in south Georgia, and now based in New York City, she made a big splash in 2008 with the release of her solo album The Orchard, a collection original love songs, ballads, and a few obscure covers. Her set at the Gaillard reflected the album’s spare and airy production and sophisticated sense of balance and pace.
After a brief introduction, Wright’s band took their places — electric/acoustic guitarist Robin Macatangay and keyboardist David Cook at stage left, and fretless electric bass player Nicholas D’Amato and drummer Jonathan Rix at stage right. Wright took a few extra moments before strolling out for an quick a capella mantra of “Hallelujah.” Launching into the set with “Salt,” a slow-swingin’ title track from her previous solo album, Wright and her band laid it all out for the audience, demonstrating a tremendous vibrance, a delicate sense of dynamics, and Wright’s unflinching reach into both spiritual and sultrier territories.
More than a few very elderly attendees sat stiffly, watching Wright and the band with their fingers in their ears as the set gained steam (Wachovia Jazz director Michael Grofsorean mentioned after he concert that he thought the sound guy might have mixed things a little too loudly). It didn’t take too long for those old-timers to loosen up, get into the grooves, and clap along.
The band bounced through a twangy, straight-rockin’ rendition of “Easy Rider,” powered by Wright’s rage. They turned Neil Young’s “Old Man” into even warmer and mellower ballad, starting softly and gradually building things up. Rix tapped his toms with mallets throughout the tune, while Wright’s deep tones nearly shook the room. Cook’s piano solo earned applause, despite a few clams here and there.
“You’re a little shy, aren’t you, Charleston,” she chuckled early in the night. Seated in the formal theater setting, many in the crowd sat politely and listened during the opening numbers. Only a few tunes in, some started clapping along, whooping and hollering after choruses, and yelling out “Yeah!” and “Amen!” during the most fiery moments.
Guitarist Macatangay’s acoustic work was beautiful, but his Buddy Guy-styled solos on his Fender Stratocaster earned the loudest applause. Cook’s chordal work and peppery solos on his Hammond B3 organ (replete with the traditional, oscillating Leslie amp) dazzled as well.
Highlights of the performance included deeply passionate renditions of oldie blues and soul songs, like Ike & Tina Turner’s “I Idolize You” and Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Hey Mann.” The latter song’s conclusion provided one of the concert’s many moments of edge-of-the-seat suspense, with a long pause between Wright’s final note and a hesitant but boisterous splash of applause.
Wright’s graceful mannerisms and silky hand gestures were as fluid as a ballerina’s throughout the show. She was a singer and bandleader in full command, but her air of confidence was too sincere and subtle to come off the wrong way.
An elegantly funky song titled “Walk With Me, Lord” (from Wright’s 2003 self-titled debut) twisted its gospel theme into a more jazzy pop feel that resembled George Benson’s or Rita Coolidge’s smoothest ’70s hits. From her 2005 album Dreaming Wide Awake, the straightforward “Hit the Ground” sauntered in 6/8 time.
Wright and the band wrapped things up with a slow-burning, acoustic-based original composition “Coming Home” (bassist D’Amato’s low-tone solo was awesome), and a spare but striking cover of the Led Zeppelin song “Thank You.” Both songs featured some of Wright’s most stirring melodic explorations.
Just as she opened the night, Wright returned to the stage for a brief a capella performance, sending things off with a hand-clappin’ version of the old sacred song “I’ve Got a Feeling.”