After performing earlier in the day at the KCRW studios in Santa Monica, Meshell Ndegeocello and her band headed down the 5 south for a set at Little Italy’s Anthology on Thursday night. Taking the stage promptly at 8:15 p.m., the quartet was all business from the get-go.
Dressed in all black and sporting oversize fire-engine-red square-framed glasses, Ndegeocello didn’t say a word before launching right into “Satisfy,” from 1999’s Bitter. And when the tightly knit drums/keys/bass/guitar combo followed that up with Plantation Lullabies’ “Shoot’n Up and Gett’n High” and its equal-parts slinky and stinging lyrics of ”Thought I was shooting Africa into my veins/ White man’s voodoo slow f---ing my brain,” we all knew it was going to be one hell of a night.
Ndegeocello is notorious for liking it dark onstage, and it didn’t take long for her to request the already dusky atmosphere to be dimmed even further. Playing a black and oxblood colored bass that was nearly bigger than her, the focused bandleader then launched into a three-song stretch from the recently released Weather. It also marked the first time of the night that the serious-minded performer would break her stage silence, offering up an explanation for the song “A Bitter Mule.” While she didn’t intend for it to be humorous, the crowd still laughed when they were told the song was written for a friend whose wife left him and moved to Miami. But you couldn’t hold that against them. Despite plenty of dinner plates still being out for a majority of the 75-minute set, the nicely sized audience was amazingly quiet and respectful in between songs. And while the new songs tend to come off somewhat benign on record, they were all wonderfully transformed in the live setting into either electric head-noddy rave-ups or prowling, molasses-slow groove jams.
Although the small-statured Ndegeocello is a commanding presence onstage, she is also a completely unselfish performer, many times stepping into the background to let one of the three other band members have a moment to shine. While never venturing into the excessive or hot dog realm, the small flourishes of guitar and keys were a welcome addition to the already eclectic jam session.
The set closed with an awesome triple shot of the in-your-face and raucous “Lola,” from Devil’s Halo, into the juxtaposed serene poetry from Weather’s “Oysters” (the album’s best song by far), into the bittersweet pessimism of “Faithful,” from Bitter.
A rousing call to the stage brought the band back out for one more, but by that point, it was apparent that everyone in the house had already been delivered the goods.