R&B Singer Bilal Comes to Notes June 16
Over the last year-plus, Notes has hosted #HereFridays, a showcase bringing R&B back to downtown in a more consistent way than anything I can think of since Brownstone on Main closed. This home base has featured some of Columbus’ prime talent including B-Jazz and MojoFlo, beloved expats like Talisha Holmes, and national acts like Eric Roberson. This week they outdo themselves with modern legend Bilal performing two live-band shows on Friday, June 16 (tickets available here).
Philadelphia-raised Bilal trained at NYC’s New School as a jazz singer. His class included keyboard virtuoso and frequent collaborator Robert Glasper. Everything he’s done has the jazz singer’s sense of getting inside the song, embodying it, breathing fire through it. Bilal’s a singer-songwriter foremost, he never forsakes melody or lyrical content for parlor-trick virtuosity.
Bilal burst into national consciousness in 2001 with 1st Born Second. Its single “Soul Sista” featured long, teasing melodic lines wrapped in rich, organic Raphael Saadiq production. It also tied him to the neo-soul genre in the minds of critics. That term never fit an artist with his ravenous capacity for the history of black music and the gift to synthesize its many strains and still sound fresh. As Bilal said in an interview with Complex, “First of all, I’ve never really considered myself neo-soul. I don’t cling to any titles or cadences in my walk of music or creation. This is soul music. It’s black music, because I’m black. There’s so many different elements inside of it, and I’ve always grabbed from a lot of different styles.”
As I revisited Bilal’s catalog to write this, I was struck by the consistency of his albums. Themes get developed and subverted, deepened and darkened, through the records. His most recent solo album, In Another Life (2015), takes that songwriting to another level. In Another Life paired Bilal with a single producer, Adrian Younge, for the first time.
Younge’s sense of the dark and cinematic is a match made in heaven for Bilal’s unsparing writing. The thickness of Younge’s settings takes Bilal’s voice into places I’d never heard. As lush as Airtight’s Revenge or A Love Surreal got, they dealt in a sparseness that In Another Life explodes with layers of organ and electric piano, slashed through with swirling, echoing cymbals and guitar.
Bilal is famous for his fiery live performances. A New York Times live review commented, “Singing ‘Love Child,’ he adopted a plangent tone that completed the tune’s nod to 1970s Ethiopian soul. “You thought it would be fun/To be a freak like me,” he taunted, starting in his baritone register and leaping two full octaves to finish the phrase. Bilal, at his best, is an electrifying performer, in the tradition of Sly Stone, and the encore, including a couple of older anthems, “All Matter” and “Make Me Over,” was pure molten ferocity.”
From an LA Weekly review: “Bilal’s background is heavily jazz-influenced, and the Echoplex at midnight must feel a lot more comfortable than mid-afternoon on a cavernous outdoor stage. In fact, Bilal played the Echoplex like an even smaller, cozier hole of a club, bouncing beside his (excellent) band, bumping and grinding, breaking into improvisation. Bilal stomped, ran in place, and matched his band beat for beat with his vocals until his shirt was nearly soaked through. Back to the audience, head bowed to his chest, body slowly pulsing as the music faded, he was at last spent.” That comfort in cozy venues bodes very well for the warm, rich-acoustics-laden basement confines of Notes. This is not to be missed.