You know it’s been an amazing evening when you leave a show and know in your gut that you’ve just been a part of something pretty special. On the third day of its shortened five-day festival, the National Black Arts Festival breathed a whole lot of life back into its 21-year-old self with Friday night’s “Legends Celebration: Sing the Truth — A Tribute to Nina Simone.”
Four powerful vocalists — Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright, Lisa Simone Kelly (Simone’s daughter) and Joi Gilliam — did more than pay tribute to Simone, they ushered her spirit back for two wonderful hours at Symphony Hall at the Woodruff Arts Center.
Georgia native Lizz Wright set the night off with ”I Loves You Porgy,” followed by the metaphorical “Old Jim Crow where you been baby / Down Mississippi and back again/ Old Jim Crow don’t you know it’s all over now?” Wright’s deep, robust contralto voice was simply near perfect.
Next up entered Kelly aka “Simone,” with a headwrap and an Afrocentric dress that reminded one of her mother. ”My mother loved Atlanta,” the Broadway singer told the crowd. “She wrote that in her journal.” After firing up the audience with “Work Song,” the very talented Kelly attempted to introduce herself. “The name on my driver’s license is Lisa Simone Kelly, but when I’m on stage I’m simply Simone. So when you go to the record store, don’t go to the K’s.”
Then Atlanta’s Joi sauntered onstage in sexy black dress and sculpted hairdo and delivered the beautiful “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (Don’t Leave Me). But it was her feisty rendition of “See Line Woman” and the way she strutted off the stage at song’s end that excited the crowd most.
“Southern girl, huh?” joked Al Shackman, Nina Simone’s longtime musical director.
Last but not least was jazz songstress Reeves, who seems to sing without effort, leaving fans in more awe of the high peaks and low valleys that her voice seems to travel. Even better, Reeves knows how to have fun. Simone would surely be proud of her playful take on “Be My Husband.”
Each woman then returned to sing another pair of songs. Notable were Wright’s a cappella “Images,” Kelly’s “Feeling Good” and Joi’s “To be Young Gifted and Black.” But it was Reeves’ singing of the bluesy “I Put a Spell on You,” that seemed to cast its own spell, rousing nearly everyone in the hall out of their seats for a standing ovation.
And if that weren’t enough, the foursome returned on stage together to perform “Four Women.”
Indeed, the legacy continues.
Did you attend Friday night’s tribute? If so, what was your favorite moment?
(The National Black Arts Festival continues through Sunday. For a schedule of events, go to nbaf.org.)