Lizz Wright at House of Blues in Cleveland

Matt Marshall By

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Lizz Wright
House of Blues
Cleveland, Ohio
June 5, 2008

The strains of swamp organ accompanied, seeming to guide, Lizz Wright onto the tight stage of the House of Blue's small, mood-lit Cambridge Room. Her movement was fluid, unhurried. When she settled behind the microphone, she rooted there like a willow in soft dirt.

Throughout the opening "Trouble"—and, indeed, throughout the evening—her arms stretched from her body like wispy limbs from a spiritual tree, at once releasing pent-up emotion and drawing replenishing waters from the crowd, the ethereal movement of the branches grounded always by the casual, often sultry, positioning of their trunk.

Then there was the voice. So clean it made you rethink the blame you've often assigned to the sound systems of lesser performers. Lizz Wright is wholly confident in her singing. She doesn't need theatrics or unnecessary volume. (She would, in fact, nearly apologize for the vocal blast that came with performing her hit "Salt.") When she plays with a note, she has good reason to do it. The "you" that ends "Salt" was twisted this night into a knotted coronary of defiance—the final gasp of one who has remained herself to the last. This was not diva time. It wasn't Mariah Carey flipping vocal gymnastics hoping that something would stick, or that someone would be duped into believing he was experiencing emotion. More than a voice, this was a singer.

Backed by a very capable quartet with a ragtag, hipster sensibility (stitched polyester leisure wear, jeans, a somehow already-faded Barack Obama T-Shirt under a tan leather jacket), Wright, in the more formal throws of a silver dress and black shoulder wrap, often appeared the stylish sage wandering a heathen forest. Yet the communion between singer and musicians was evident throughout. They exchanged more knowing smiles than a pack of NBA referees.

"No one can stop me," Wright sang with oomph on the night's third number, "Another Angel." "I'm gonna run till I get free." It was heartfelt, making you wonder if this rising, seemingly individualistic star might not be feeling bound by more than just a man tugging from her past. While her music is well-fed and dripping from all the soul of American dirt, she is nevertheless, as her recent release Orchard (Verve, 2008) attests, gonna make a point of hoeing her own row.

This independent spirit was there in her performance of "Walk With Me, Lord," the traditional gospel hymn—a plea for spiritual guidance and support, to be sure. But when Wright asked that He hold her hand, and then with a joyful—dare I say, flirtatious—smile raised an available palm to the heavens, even God must have stammered. Yet the offering was in no way profane. It was love without the posturing so often on display beneath hallowed steeples. And it caused at least one listener committed in his non-belief and aversion to institutional religion to reconsider—if just for a moment—the merits of church (albeit one with Ms. Wright leading the choir).

While Wright continues to make her mark as a songwriter and singer of original material, she hasn't lost the ability to reinvent the work of others. Consider "Old Man," the Neil Young nugget. From its opening lines, the crowd was ebullient in its praise. This from a group unlikely to sit through a playing of the original. But with a good nose for fertile cover material and the authenticity to take possession of it, Wright is able to spark even an over-spun classic like this one. If Young's version had just come out yesterday, the young-female-to-old-male take might still be the more interesting.

During the set, guitarist Oren Bloedow was often called upon to mix up the flavor, and he handled the job ably, switching from the straight-ahead rock groove of "Old Man" to a bluesy solo on "I Idolize You." Bassist Nick D'Amato and drummer Chris Eddleton kept matters grounded and nicely shattered respectively. But it was keyboardist Jeremy Mage, aptly placed at stage's front edge, almost teetering into the crowd, who gave the group its funk. His solo on "Walk With Me, Lord" (sprung from Bloedow's rooted foundation) was one of organ-asmic joy, Mage's left paw swatting the keys like that of a calico battling catnip.

But for all its power, there's a calmness that runs through all of Lizz Wright's music, an assuredness of being in itself. The privilege of hearing her in concert stems from her ability to make that sense of well- being contagious.

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