In the time between sets at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night before Solange took the stage to close out a KCRW-sponsored “Cosmic Journey” concert, the house lights remained off, maybe to make the venue feel more like an intimate club than an enormous amphitheater. Stevie Wonder’s weirdo one-off soundtrack for “The Secret Life of Plants” played at length over the PA, a reminder of a headier time when soul music really could evoke the cosmos as well as the street.
And then arrived Solange, and suddenly Stevie’s vintage combination of ethereality and grit didn’t seem so impossibly distant after all. The album she’s still touring behind, “A Seat at the Table” (released a year ago this week), didn’t just completely reinvent the younger Knowles sister; it also set a fantastic course for just how many bases R&B can hit going into the future. Its slow-enveloping sound is loose and ambient enough for the late-night KCRW crowd, but Knowles is less interested in accompanying that with Stevie’s photosynthesis than photorealism. It’s a neo-soul think-piece that’s largely about race — half-sleepy, in its musical dreaminess, yet altogether woke.
Given that race was very much on America’s mind over the weekend, it seemed like a distinct possibility that someone with views as strong as Solange’s might address current events from the stage. She didn’t, although the more pointed songs from “A Seat at the Table” did the talking, with Solange emerging into the crowd to address the black pride anthem “F.U.B.U.” (standing for “for us, by us”) to a pocket of African American fans in the radically diverse audience; later, she wrapped up the show with the self-explanatory “Don’t Touch My Hair,” a song that manages to be warning and celebration all at once.
But if there was any overt color-coding going on during Sunday’s show, it had to do with the mesmerizing stage design and lighting. Solange’s set started off bathed in a warm, subdued orange, shifting later to red, blue, and back again, never getting as bright as any typical concert’s would. She never moved onto more than one hue at a time, either, with these solitary tones proving that monochrome has been severely underrated in concert design. The set itself consisted partly of a giant, stage-spanning staircase, like something out of an MGM musical, even if Busby Berkeley and Vicente Minnelli would have been utterly puzzled by Solange’s 21st century mood lighting. Solange did make grand entrances and exits on that staircase, though it served mostly as a place for eight additional horn players and eight string players to occasionally loiter.
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All those stairs, and the giant overhead orb and stage-side pyramid, stood as reminders of the arty performance that Solange did at New York’s Guggenheim last year. Unlike the small audience for that one, the crowd at the Bowl was not required to wear all white, although Solange and her musicians obliged in that regard. As the set kicked off with some of the most carefully paced tunes from the latest album, Solange and her two backup singers took choreographic minimalism one step more minimal be executing the slightest moves possible, one leg shift at a time, in unison or sequentially, with sudden jerks or head bangs interrupting the simulation of slow motion, even as the four core musicians put a little more swing into the soundtrack. It was a successful exercise in how little it’s possible do on stage and still be captivating.
Of course, art monster or not, Solange didn’t intend to spend the entire show twitching a single muscle every few bars. A sudden, solitary outburst of twerking a couple of songs in assured the audience that not the entire show would count as a museum piece. The funk eventually started flowing among Solange and her pair of dancers as well as the four core musicians, until the queenly star eventually ended up on her back, legs contorting furiously in the air, like a kid who’d just jumped onto a hotel mattress for the first time. Along the way, as dynamic as the stage became, there were as few stops as possible for anything resembling MTV Awards-era choreography as possible.
The show’s best moment came during “Some Things Never Seem to F—ing Work,” when Solange picked out a fellow in the front row and sang to him, at length, their noses inches apart, that untouchable hair obscuring her face some as the Bowl cameras moved in for a close-up. Audiences have certainly seen plenty in recent years of superstar divas who invite a dude on-stage and straddle him in a chair, but Solange established that eyeball-to-eyeball intimacy is the most severe straddling a fearless performer can do.
Some attendees might have been happy if the entire set consisted of subdued “Seat at the Table” material, but Solange still has a few too many traditional show-biz instincts in her to quite let an entire live show proceed in that idyllic a lull. So for the second half of her set, she turned to songs from her pre-Raphael Saadiq period, when she was making more conventional R&B/dance-pop — including one song, “Crush,” from her debut, recorded, she pointed out, when she was 15 (she’s now 31), and several from a 2012 EP, “True.” For the latter tunes, she brought out rhythm guitar-playing guest Dev Hynes, who helped craft the ‘80s- and ‘90s-sounding bangers on that mini-LP (and who opened the show as a member of Blood Orange).
The carefully crafted spell of the more cerebral “Seat at the Table” material was broken when Solange busted out the more up-tempo straight-ahead beats and reverted to pre-neo-soul form. At that point, the show evoked cosmic Stevie less than it did SWV. But it was a cathartic break, leaving the exiting crowd on a high from seeing that, beneath the more socially aware and regal persona that’s made Solange a real artist to reckon with, the brattier, booty-shaking princess hasn’t completely gone away.