Last night's Esperanza Spalding performance was unlike most that the Ogden Theatre sees -- or has seen, for that matter. The presence of chairs (chairs!) in front of the stage was testimony to this. The Ogden is a rock club, first and foremost. If there's any doubt of that, go check out Steve Vai, Owl City, Chevelle or Garbage -- they'll all be cranking up their amps there this week and next. This was a notably more sophisticated affair. Spalding would be having none of that -- though she'd be polite in telling you so.
When the house lights went down, the ten-piece band appeared, dressed in black, and began playing the opening bit to Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady." Stage was still darkened. After a scant few seconds, the song transitioned, then again, and again, at one point playing George Michael's "Careless Whisper" and at another playing some old gospel tune.
Oh... we get it. The giant wood-and-fabric mockup of a radio on stage, if not the title of Spalding's 2012 release, Radio Music Society, indicated that the night would be dominated by this theme. The band was just playing what you might hear on a radio if you flipped through the stations. Clever.
When the stage lights went up and Spalding herself appeared -- tiny, poofball-haired and gracefully strutting across the stage in four-inch heels -- the vibe brightened considerably. "We want you to be happy, and want you to leave better than you felt when you tuned in," she said, all while effortlessly picking out syncopated patterns on the bass. She introduced the band, which included three saxes, two trumpets, a couple trombones and a stellar rhythm section.
Spalding and band performed "I Can't Help It," a Stevie Wonder-penned song that appeared on both Michael Jackson's Off the Wall album and Spalding's most recent release. Aside from showcasing the obvious influences of those two geniuses, this song was a good example of what may be deemed the Spalding style: casual, mid-tempo syncopated rhythms (at times reminiscent of West Indian soca and bachata), relying heavily on the drums and bass, with Spalding's lilting, unobtrusive vocals sporadically breaking through to bring order to the jam session. She would occasionally stop mid-lyric, bending her knees and arching her back, to just absorb what she was hearing. With eyes closed, naturally.
Spalding's banter was classic. She informed the audience, a stand-in for a love interest that has maybe been losing interest in her, that they need to have "a talk." (You know by her tone that it wouldn't be a nice talk, either.) "I noticed you've been smiling at another woman," she said, staring at hundreds of faces as though they were a single man who'd done her wrong. She and band then launched into "Smile Like That," the final song on Radio Music Society.
The band and the crowd had at least a couple things in common. Both were multigenerational and multi-ethnic, a mixed bag of race and age that fit well with the everyone-love-one-another atmosphere Spalding doubtlessly hoped to create. And for the most part, she succeeded, though the atmosphere onstage at the Ogden was that of controlled chaos, or perhaps more appropriately, planned spontaneity. Understandably, it's hard to cut loose when leading a small army of musicians. Nevertheless, you get the feeling that Spalding's jilted lover gimmick has been done more than once before.
After a few more songs that included "Crowned and Kissed" (an ode to good-hearted men of the world) and another Radio Music Society standout, "Black Gold," Spalding had another heart-to-heart with the audience, this time about a more serious topic: She told the audience about how a few months ago, while working on this album, she got distracted by a news story on television.
When she tuned in, she heard a segment on Cornelius Dupree, Jr., the 53-year-old former inmate who was released from jail after serving a thirty-year sentence for crimes he didn't commit. This inspired both the song "Land of the Free," and also prompted Spalding to give proceeds of her CD sales to The Innocence Project.
That song segued into "Cinnamon Tree," all but confirming this would be an all-Radio Music Society night. No matter; the songs here are deeper, more mature and ultimately more confident than Spalding's previous efforts (yes, including even 2010's breakout album, Chamber Music Society).
The audience was then treated to at least one more monologue, this one about... critters. Spalding talked about visiting Peru recently, and spending time in the jungle there. Despite all her training (she was one of the youngest instructors ever to teach at Berklee), she was overwhelmed by the sounds and rhythms of the rainforest. "The birds and crickets are hipper than all of us," she said, before playing one of the band's final tunes, an interpretation of Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species."
An encore later, and the show was done. Spalding's spell was cast: judging by the collective smiles, the audience did feel better than they did when they first tuned in. Walking back out onto this particularly hairy stretch of Colfax, however, getting hit up for change, and seeing the abject state of those walking down the street, it was hard not to want to run back inside, if just to find a little bit of the warmth that had been generated over the previous two hours.
Personal Bias: My dear mama turned me on to Spalding just two weeks ago, whereas previously, she'd been best known as that mysterious young woman who won the Grammy a couple years back.
Random Note: There was a girl in the audience waving pom-poms throughout the whole show!
By the Way: President Obama handpicked this woman to play after his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance ceremony. If that's not something to go on Spalding's CV, I don't know what is.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.