Esperanza Spalding is one extravagantly gifted young woman. She has stage presence, sings well, plays electric and acoustic double bass like a demon, writes and arranges most of her own material, has a social conscience, and isn’t afraid to constantly push her talents outward in different directions. Now, if only we in the audience were given a chance to hear what she can do live – which came through now and then through the dreadful sound system at the Fonda Theatre Friday night.
Spalding’s newly-released album on Heads Up is called “Radio Music Society,” which is a distinct departure from her previous album “Chamber Music Society,” which in turn was a distinct departure from the album before that, “Esperanza.” While she remains fused to a jazz base, there are elements of soul and pop at work; the songs speak intelligently of all shades of love, black pride, oblivious news media, the environment, and even includes an evocative love letter to her native Portland (“City Of Roses”) that the local tourist board could easily adopt.
Spalding’s current show, built entirely around the new album, seemed much better focused than her spotty set at the Playboy Festival in 2010. She now has an appealing, languorous rhythm to her between-song patter, no longer desperately trying to stimulate audience involvement. She has a big band of winds and brasses behind her as well as the usual guitar-keyboards-drums, and the main prop is a mock-up of an old-fashioned, slide-rule-dial radio that surfs through static and snatches of tunes at the show’s opening.
At this point in her development, Spalding’s songs are complex, intricately-arranged organisms that seem to appeal more to the head than the heart or the feet. She also ventured a little outside her material with a nice cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” and her own set of lyrics to Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” – an unusual choice from Wayne’s world and a platform for her strong views about the destruction of nature.
In any event, all of this ought to be properly projected live. At the Fonda, whenever the full band came in or started jamming, the result was an incoherent jumble – and in the case of the distorted guitar solo in “Smile Like That,” painful. Only when the fewest instruments were in action could the sound be considered remotely acceptable – the sole organ behind Spalding’s voice in her protest song about false imprisonment, “Land Of The Free,” or the solo encore with just Esperanza scatting against her phenomenal acoustic bass playing. Esperanza Spalding’s songs deserve much more sympathetic sonic treatment than what they got.