Meshell Ndegeocello’s versatility might be considered a blessing and a curse. Unlike Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill — two peers with whom she shares a certain mystique and eccentricity — her artistry is diffuse, a trait with which certain critics have taken exception. But to her hardcore fans, her broad musical grasp is a thing to be celebrated.
A number of them showed up Friday night at L.A.’s Village Recorder, where Ndegeocello exhibited that range with astounding assurance and dexterity despite suffering from a cold.
It wasn’t a show she was likely to cancel. The hundred or so in attendance had paid $200 a pop for the opportunity to see their music idol up close and personal in an intimate setting. “I’m very grateful,” she assured the audience. “I didn’t think anyone would come. Beware of uncertainty and doubt.”
She even stuck around for a Q&A afterward conducted by Arun Rath of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
The event was initially billed as an opportunity to see Ndegeocello play her celebrated 1993 debut album, “Plantation Lullabies,” uninterrupted. But instead the singer-songwriter-bassist extraordinaire drew material from throughout her career, including her latest, “Comet, Come to Me” (Naive), which hit the racks on Tuesday.
Like the new recording, the show drew upon the many genres that Ndegeocello has mastered over the years: old-school R&B; jazz of the “quiet storm” variety; rap in the way Barry White approached it, as spoken-word seduction; unadulterated funk; post-punk rock; dub-step; and even Americana.
Although it spanned the musical spectrum, the show was just as notable for what it left out, including “Comet’s” title track, “Modern Time” and “Forget My Name,” three reggae-tinged numbers that provide continuity to the new album, as well as “Comet’s” most mellifluous song, “Shopping for Jazz,” a wondrously ethereal thing that floats atop a reverie of acoustic and slide guitars.
Also missing were her most infamous provocations, “Leviticus: Faggot,” from her breakthrough “Peace Beyond Passion”; “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” from “Lullabies”; or anything from “Pour une Âme Souveraine,” Ndegeocello’s tribute album to Nina Simone, perhaps her closest spiritual predecessor.
But there was plenty of wonderful musicianship on display. Longtime collaborator Chris Bruce exhibited equal dexterity on electric and acoustic guitars, laying down a bluesy riff that Keith Richards would be proud to call his own on “Conviction,” from the new recording.
But the prevailing theme of the night was love and longing in all their permutations, as on the slow-burn anthems of desire “Outside Your Door” and “Dred Loc,” from “Lullabies,” and “Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart,” from her breakthrough “Peace Beyond Passion” LP.
The funky fusion of “I’m Diggin’ You (Like an Old Soul Record)” and “Dead End” allowed the band to stretch out. And while Abe Rounds on drums might not have matched the bat-out-of-hell drive of Deantoni Parks, who played with Ndegeocello at the Sunset Junction Street Fair a few years back in what seemed more like a punk set than anything else, this was, and is, a band that lived up to the expectations that come from a Meshell-led ensemble.