In recent years some of New York’s most unusual concerts have taken place at its most prestigious museums, either as special events or as entertainment at benefit parties for donors and members. We’ve seen artists ranging from The Weeknd and Robyn to James Blake and even Tei Shi performing at the Museum of Modern Art; Interpol rocked the 2,000-year-old Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Met, and last year the Guggenheim — you know, the one where Will Smith chases down the cephalopod in “Men in Black” — hosted “An Ode To…,” a stunning, unique performance from Solange based around her “Seat at the Table” album.
While the special events are largely staged for fans and feel more like regular concerts in a wildly exotic setting, the donor and member parties, which are not always open to the general public, attract a more affluent society/arts-foundation-type clientele and/or their often extremely well-dressed offspring, along with resourceful fans who’ve managed to find a way in. As such, they can make for a disorienting reversal for anyone expecting a traditional concert: the entertainment is sometimes secondary to the audience, and the press and photographers in attendance are focused accordingly.
With that context, the look on the face of 21-year-old British soul singer Jorja Smith — whose debut album was chosen as one of Variety’s mid-year Best Albums of 2018 (so far) — as she took the stage at the center of the Guggenheim’s circular floor on Wednesday night was one of priceless incredulity, although it’s not as if she hasn’t already seen enough surreal moments in a brief career that has already seen her guesting with Drake and Kendrick Lamar and opening an arena tour for Bruno Mars. While stripped down in format, this show, a “Pre-Party” the evening before the museum’s International Gala benefit dinner, was essentially the opening night of her first American tour since the album’s release, and she delivered torch-esque renditions of songs from the album, accompanied by just a keyboardist and electric guitarist.
While the musicians can sometimes feel like background entertainment at such shows, happily the Guggenheim’s circular structure meant that all attention was focused on Smith, and a dazzling light show illuminated both the stage and the upward-spiraling rotunda that reaches five stories above the ground floor. The combination of Smith, clad in a black sparkly dress, with the rotunda, the Hilma af Klint exhibit hanging on the walls and the spectacularly dressed audience was irresistible.
Not surprisingly, her songs — which recall Amy Winehouse, Sade and early Erykah Badu — work well in a small jazzy-combo setting, although her between-song comments were often lost in the museum’s cavernous acoustics. She also left the crowd wanting more, leaving the stage after a 35-odd-minute set, ceding to the DJ (who was seen rocking hard to Smith’s set) and the free-champagne-and-vodka-fueled revelry that ensued.