Opera House, Wellington
Sunday, June 12
Lisa Fischer was a Grammy-winnning R’n’B singer in the early 1990s. Unable to push her solo career further or unwilling to be the centre-stage star she has spent most of the last three decades as a backing singer, a quarter-century touring with The Rolling Stones, time also with Luther Vandross, Sting and Tina Turner and if any other proof were needed of her versatility she recently completed a tour with Nine Inch Nails.
One of the stars of the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, a warm tribute to the role of the backing singer and the stories of a few key figures, Fischer has now resumed her solo career in earnest. Backing her, the band Grand Baton, a supple trio featuring rhythm section Aidan Carroll (bass) and Thierry Arpino (drum) and musical director JC Maillard (guitar, keys, programming) all capable of offering shadings of blues, reggae, flamenco and dark, dramatic pop.
This was never quite jazz but there was a jazzy sass to Fischer’s phrasing.
She could sing the phonebook – and if the opening numbers, including a rendition of Amy Grant’s modern gospel, Breath of Heaven and a bluesy poke at Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down were a little too esoteric, delivered deep inside an ethereal waft, the songs started to take shape shortly after.
Maillard was a distracting presence, his guitar tone too seemed all wrong, though we might settle on merely incongruous. His energy didn’t match Fischer’s. But no matter. Covers of Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones songs lifted the drift and saw Carroll and Arpino locking into some infectious grooves. Even Fischer’s own How Can I Ease The Pain, the Grammy-winning highlight from her 1991 solo album, So Intense was a standout.
Her voice, or rather voices, bounced out from two microphones as she deftly moved from gorgeous high notes, to a deep and earthy blues tone, channelling at times a previous Jazz Festival visitor, Cassandra Wilson, in the way she served the songs, the movement of her shoulders conveying the weight or worth of the words, the shaking of hips signalling where the music might come from next.
Fischer was warm and enthusiastic in her love of and for the music, the band and the audience. And that was palpable. A huge part of what made the evening special. It wasn’t quite a knock-out performance. There were moments of boredom, the band was at times frustrating, particularly Maillard’s smug showcases hiding inside some designer-hippie look and feel. It was almost as if he thought “Namaste” was less about the Divine spark and more a case of “Look at me”, his faux-prayer bowing and aim for serene transcendence almost derailing.
But Fischer’s voice is astounding. And that was the main gift from this show.
This review first appeared in The Dominion Post and online at Stuff here