This post is a guest review by Leo Weekly’s Damien McPherson.
The Madame Walker Theater is showing its age. The room dates back to the 1920s, but since its renovation in the late 70s, it appears little has been done to modernize the space (though their website does mention fundraising attempts). It’s still a beautiful building, wedged into its intersection on the edge of downtown Indianapolis, and the missing “K” on the rooftop’s sign at least gives a bit of personality even in the face of sadness at urban decay from historical sites.
Maybe I was looking a bit too closely, but by the time Bilal hit the stage, he looked pissed off. The sound in the room wasn’t great, and the 935-seater was barely half-filled (we sat in the sparsely populated balcony so as to give you the astounding visuals accompanying these words). One of the keyboardist’s platforms wasn’t plugged into the mix, leaving out many of the songs’ electronic bleeps and bloops and leaving room for a roadie to hover at the side of stage laying cable, distracting to say the least. The guitar amp failed during an early solo, and it appeared the drummer was having a monitor issue. It wasn’t until almost halfway through the show, during “Sometimes”, that what approximated a smile crossed Bilal’s mouth and he looked comfortable. None of this took away from his vocal performance, mind you, as the man is a machine. His perfectly controlled vocal abandon is one of modern music’s marvels: soulful, jazzy, and church-infected. The guy could sing Nickelback songs and sound like a genius (don’t prove that, though, please).
Something To Hold On To, Make Me Over, Gotsta Be Cool, Lord Don’t Let It, For You, Reminisce (flipped with the J Dilla “The $” beat), Fast Lane, Sometimes:
The first half of his set was split between his debut, First Born Second, and his shelved-but-leaked followup “Love For Sale”. He seems perfectly at ease on stage with the audience’s familiarity with the material they shouldn’t know, and proves himself a bigger man than me. I’d play half of one of those songs, and the second I spot someone singing along, I’d probably stop the song and ask for ten bucks from the person. Glad he didn’t, though, ‘cause I didn’t have any cash on me, much as he deserved it. “Fast Lane”, the non-representative first single from his debut, finally got the arrangement it deserved outside of its Dr. Dre studio sheen.
“Sometimes” is always a wonder, the little song that could. It was never a single, but the crowd demands it and sings along as if it were a standard. The second half of the set is mostly from his latest, Airtight’s Revenge, and the crowd wasn’t as responsive (though this was definitely a ‘giving’ crowd, very loose and supportive) to this material. “Little Ones”, dedicated to his autistic son, was a definite highlight, the emotional connection to the song a tangible thing. He closed the main set with the incredible “All Matter”. While I’m partial to the arrangement on Robert Glasper’s Double Booked, here he worked magic on his Airtight version. This song easily takes permanent residence in my favorite songs of the last decade. Just listen/watch.
Levels > All Matter:
Beggars not being choosy, the crowd’s response at this point didn’t really require an encore. They seemed to give up their cheering rather quickly. Thankfully, Bilal’s show is built for an encore, as he hadn’t performed his biggest song yet or this tour’s epic closer. “Soul Sista” melted every woman in the room, as it’s done for a decade now, while the Led Zeppelin cover “Since I’ve Been Loving You” melted the walls. A great quickie road trip, another excellent Bilal show (my second of this album cycle), and here’s a near perfect visual representation to enjoy. -Damien McPherson
Since I’ve Been Loving You (Led Zeppelin cover):