Lisa Fischer’s voice has filled stadiums and arenas around the world.
But she brought art-songs, not arena rock, to the Dakota Jazz Club Thursday for two sold-out shows. The evening will certainly rank among the year's most musically satisfying and rewarding performances.
Twenty-three years after scoring a No. 1 R&B song and a Grammy for her debut album, Fischer has undertaken her first solo tour. She’s been mostly a backup singer for the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Sting, Nine Inch Nails, Luther Vandross and others. But the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary about background singers, “20 Feet from Stardom,” unexpectedly made her a star.
Her magnificent voice was on display at the Dakota, a wondrous instrument that can seamlessly blend classical, jazz, soul, gospel, rock and folk into the same song and sometimes the same sentence. What she didn’t do in the 95-minute first set was cut loose like she does at Stones concert. She didn’t have to.
She mesmerized, haunted and seduced with nuance, dynamics and remarkable inventiveness. She inhabits her songs, taking listeners on a journey filled with generous heart, soul and spirituality, whether interpreting Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” as spaced out jazz infused with gospel, soul and Afro-jazz or the Stones’ “Jumpin Jack Flash” as a slow-burn Southern soul song.
The 55-year-old New Yorker even completely recast her 1991 Grammy-winning hit, “How Can I Ease the Pain,” built around a simple guitar figure that suggested Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Fischer reinvented Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven” into a celebration of grace that owed as much to jazz and classical as to gospel.
She jazzed up the blues of Eric Bibb’s “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down” (complete with her scatting a harmonica) and fueled Railroad Earth’s “Bird in the House” with a reggae vibe and a soothing, reassuring voice. Her finger-snapping take on “Fever” went from lusciously jazzy to a tad sassy to a call and response with acoustic guitar passages to a high-note classical ending.
But the real wow factor at the Dakota was the way Fischer reimagined Stones songs.
After calling “Gimme Shelter” about 30 years old (it was actually recorded 45 years ago), she turned the roof-raising classic into a lesson in sophisticated spirituality, delivering it like a minister’s sermon filled with firm but not histrionic urgency. With the ending coming across like lovely Anita Baker-like cooing of “sweet love,” the diminished volume did not compromise the potency of the performance. In fact, this version was no less effective than the Stones’ classic rendition.
Fischer reshaped “Satisfaction” not only with gender references (“girly action” became “boy reaction” and “the same T-shirt as me” became “the same lingerie as me”) but made it feel like a proud declaration of a liberated woman rather than the horny whine of an adolescent boy.
On a breathtaking treatment of “Wild Horses,” Fischer’s voice fluttered like a butterfly, and she and her fine three-man ethno-funk-prog-gospel-rock band (dubbed Grand Baton) found a percussive Afro-pop groove on “Miss You,” making listeners forget that it was hatched as a disco piffle. The Stones never sounded so arty.
Musical director/arranger J.C. Maillard distinguished himself on acoustic and electric guitar and a custom-made, eight-string acoustic instrument that was inspired by the Turkish saz.
Another intriguing aspect was Fischer using two vocal mics, including one with delay that, in essence, became her voice as background singer (even though two of her sideman occasionally essayed backup vocalis).
In the second set, Fischer dropped Zep’s “Rock and Roll” in favor of a voodoo soul reading of the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” -- and the crowd liked it, yes they did, because it was the only time all night that she unleashed a full-throated scream like you hear at a Stones concert.
After the late show, a veteran Stones fan came up to me and proclaimed: “This was the best Stones show ever.”