Nina Simone, 68 years old and wearing a sparkly blue and black dress and carrying a feather duster in her right hand, entered the Greek’s stage with a deserved air of entitlement. She played the songs that the packed house came to hear — “Sugar in My Bowl,” “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Just Like a Woman” and “Black Is the Color” — and delighted everyone with a coy sense of humor, a spare piano style and a marvelously rich voice that hit its marks a good 75% of the time.
Simone continues to be one of pop music’s most indefinable acts. A soulful singer and composer with an activist’s heart and scholar’s mind, her show, like her best records, are pedagogical trips through the Civil Rights movement, Tin Pan Alley and Bob Dylan. In nearly every moment onstage, she conveys pain and pride with a soul-baring honesty that allows the audience to dismiss her occasional pitch problems or the too-dense sound of her subtlety-free backing unit.
Her version of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” is a lesson in appropriating a song, assimilating the lyrics and making them singularly personal. It doesn’t work as well on George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” but her use of two Bob Marley tunes — “Redemption Song” and “Get Up Stand Up” — within her own material demonstrates exactly how far away she can get from any single definition.
It has been eight years since Simone has issued an album in the States and nearly 30 since she left these shores to settle abroad, winding up in her current home in the south of France. This is her third visit to the U.S. in the last year or so, perhaps a sign that she is warming up to a country she disdains. Current nine-city tour will take her to Chicago, Seattle and Detroit this month and one hopes this continuing reintroduction to America will result in a new recording.
Openers Los Hombres Calientes delivered a blistering 70-minute set that ran from free jazz to a combination of chanting and percussion to Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” to some New Orleans party music. Led by percussionist and former Headhunter Bill Summers and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, Los Hombres bang out unique stylistic melange that emphasizes group playing and dynamics over extended solos. Their third volume of “New Congo Square” (Basin Street Records) is the most exuberant and accomplished disc to date. The tracks that they recorded with Cuban musicians, which made their way into Sunday’s set, needed that extra instrumental punch, but in terms of evoking the island’s heat, they succeeded.