Two of the most emotive singers on the planet performed in separate concerts Monday in the Twin Cities. And they couldn’t have been such opposite extremes.
Veteran Lisa Fischer, 56, mesmerized a full house at the Dakota Jazz Club with her mostly quiet, meditative, organic art songs while later Brittany Howard, 26, of Alabama Shakes unleashed her thunderous rock ‘n’ soul voice at Paisley Park. Both were extraordinary -- they get lost in their songs and take listeners with them-- in what turned out to be side gigs for both.
Fischer, a star of the Oscar-winning documentary "20 Feet From Stardom," is in town to perform Wednesday at TCF Bank Stadium as a backup singer for the Rolling Stones. Howard was in town for a sold-out Alabama Shakes concert with Father John Misty in front of 8,000 Saturday at Hall’s Island, a green space on the Mississippi River in northeast Minneapolis.
First the star news. None of the Stones showed up at Fischer’s gigs either Monday or Sunday at the Dakota. But Prince not only watched the Alabama Shakes show from a couch at the back of Paisley Park’s soundstage but he joined the newish band on guitar to jam for about five minutes. It was quite a sight to see Prince, the music icon with the substantial Afro, standing next to Howard, the newcomer who is a head taller even without her bleached wavey hair.
After blessing Brittany and her band by joining them, Prince then watched the rest of the set from that couch and gave Alabama Shakes a standing ovation along with the 1,000 or so people who got their $35 worth.
This may have been one of the earliest concerts at Paisley Park, with the band taking the stage at 9:30 after an introduction by Hannah Ford Welton, drummer for Prince’s 3rdEyeGirl. She talked about how she and Donna Grantis, 3rdEye’s guitarist, and their husbands had been blown away by Alabama Shakes on Saturday so they invited them to perform at Paisley.
In their 95-minute performance at Paisley, Alabama Shakes played pretty much the same songs they did on Saturday (read Chris Riemenschneider’s review) but in different order with more intimacy and a superior sound system. (Their early hit “Hold On” was missing once again.) Proudly punkish, they may be one of the least tight bands to grace the Paisley sound stage. But that didn’t diminish the potency of Howard’s performance. As Lisa Fischer will tell you, “That girl can sing.”
Part Etta James, part Janis Joplin and part Otis Redding, Howard unleashed a big, bluesy, soulful voice. She could be subtle and she could raise the roof with equal authority -- sometimes doing both in the same song. When her band appeared at the Cabooze Plaza two years ago, she seemed a little bit shy at first and eventually warmed to the task. On Monday, she commanded the stage with her voice, guitar and presence from the get-go. She is confident and comfortable in her skin.
Howard didn’t hesitate to talk about her hair when a fan shouted out a compliment. “I’ll tell the lady who does my hair that you like it,” she responded. “I can’t do this. Did you see what I used to look like?” Then she called the fans “flatterers.”
Another fan asked if Howard had gone fishin’ in Minnesota. Not on Monday but on Sunday, she explained. Her catch: a sunfish and a large-mouth bass. We’re guessing Prince wasn’t her fishing guide. No, it turned out to be Jim McGuinn, program director of 89.3 The Current who blogged about it.
The material from Alabama Shakes’ slickly produced second album, “Sound & Color,” sounds more organic and emotional live. To be sure, there are some self-consciously odd touches like Eastern guitar figures and some spare, minor-key songs like the Prince-evoking “Gemini” (he is a Gemini; his birthday is Sunday). Songs like “The Greatest,” which sounds like a sped-up version of Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High,” showed off the band’s punk-rock proclivity and Howard’s full-throated screaming potential. But the overall take-away was that her powerful pipes are perfect on her own mélange of Southern soul.
As for Fischer, I wasn’t able to see her entire performance on Monday but saw her Sunday night gig. She was more relaxed and rested on Monday even though the set list was pretty much the same. So here’s a look at Sunday’s 95-minute effort.
As I said last year when Fischer appeared in September and December at the Dakota (which she called her “second home” on Monday), she is not only one of the most superlative all-around singers in the world but she’s also the most artistically, intellectually and emotionally satisfying small-room female performer working today. Period.
She is a remarkably imaginative interpreter with her voice and entire being. Whether she turned Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven” into a meditation that ran through choral, gospel and classical music or Led Zeppelin’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” into a Middle Eastern rock-funk journey complete with deep voiced moans and Robert Plant-like screams, she took club-goers there with her versatile voice, dancing hands and happy (bare) feet.
Aidan Carroll’s creative bass playing made listeners rethink the Stones’ disco classic “Miss You,” and JC Maillard’s wondrous work on a custom-designed SazBass made for a thrilling counterpoint to Fischer’s very gospelly soulful take on the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
But nothing was more magical and mystical than her treatment of “Gimme Shelter,” which she turned into a 14-minute choral-meets-jazz rumination on the embrace of love. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards may have written the song but let’s see the Stones top Fischer’s unforgettable version on Wednesday.
By the by, three other Rolling Stones backup musicians – saxophonist Tim Ries, singer Bernard Fowler and keyboardist Chuck Leavell – will perform Tuesday night at the Dakota. Joining them will be Twin Cities musicians Kevin Washington on drums, Gary Raynor on bass and Cory Wong on guitar. The show is sold out.