Guest Post by Kiini Ibura Salaam
On Wednesday night, Alice Smith ended a brief tour for her new album She at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. Alice is modern woman with an old-school style: She boasts a riveting stage presence, mind-blowing vocal and breath control, and a raw realness that cuts to the quick. Her voice—the unquestionable centerpiece of her performance—is uniquely throaty and earthy, with a grown-ass-woman depth. Captivating the audience from the opening of the show to the final note at the end of the three-song encore, she delivered a full-bodied, incandescent, and startling performance.
The evening began with “Cabaret.” She sang the acapella intro from the wings as if to tell the audience—this is my instrument, this is what you have come to witness, this is the gift I plan to slay you with. And slay us she did. Barring a brief interlude in which she flirtatiously asked if we liked her dress—which was skin-tight and sheer when the light hit it; her hair—which was poufy, old school glamour; and the lights—which skittered around trying to keep up with her, she didn’t bother chatting us up, introducing songs, or providing us with background. On this night, she came to sing. She blew through the Bowery Ballroom like a freight train with a mission. If her mission was to ensure that everyone in attendance would follow her siren’s song to its final whisper, she succeeded.
In a generous set, she covered both her new album She and her critically acclaimed debut, For Lovers, Dreamers & Me. Halfway through the evening, when I was already dizzy and intoxicated on the deliciousness of her performance, she ripped into her cover of Cee Lo Green’s “Fool for You.” The whole evening could have been encapsulated in that performance. I’ve heard her rendition of “Fool for You” on YouTube as well as live at the AfroPunk festival—the song obviously speaks to her. Those renditions are fantastic, and yet don’t hold a candle to the performance she threw down at the Bowery Ballroom. The potency in her performance is in the power of her voice, the womanly conversational tone of her phrasing, and the fierce passion she feels for whatever lyric she’s singing. Her singing is a demand that you feel—the echoes of your past, the vibrato of her voice, the heartbreak of humanity. Live, Alice introduces extra grit and texture, more dramatic rolling, heightening the vibration of each of her recorded songs. The entire time she sang “Fool for You,” her face was contorted and emphatic as she told us everything we needed to know about that particular love story. You didn’t just feel like you wanted to witness the show, you wanted to step into the skin of the song and show with your energy that you got what she was laying down on you.
Another writer mentioned what a difference a few years make. It’s true that when Alice started performing years ago, she seemed to undersell her physical presentation. She wore button-down shirts and jeans, glasses and cut-off shorts. Her clothing seemed to assert that she was here to sing. There is something in her demeanor that radiates the message that she won’t be pandering to the audience. She’s not here to titillate. On Wednesday night, the woman that stood before us did not need to dress down to let us know what she was about. Her curves on display did not signal that she had become a puppet or the type of performer who plays to the audience for thrills. The body conscious dresses and out-to-there hair just seemed to demonstrate that she had sunken that much deeper into her own skin. That now, all these years later, there was more to her—more depth to her voice, more air in her lungs, more scars on her heart. She was radiant and well seasoned. During her absence she seems to have been developing into a performer that fully and unapologetically embodies her full self. If you see an Alice Smith concert date in a city near you, buy the ticket. Your soul, ears, and heart will thank you for it.
(Editor’s note: While not from the same performance, this rendition of Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” captures the energy and vibe on display on Wednesday night.)
Kiini Ibura Salaam is recent alum of the Bold As Love reading series Sundays @. She is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana whose work is rooted in eroticism, speculative events, women’s perspectives, and artistic freedom. Her collection Ancient, Ancient –winner of the 2012 James Tiptree Award–spins sensual tales of the fantastic, the dark, and the magical. Visit her Website or follow her on Twitter.