I don't think I ever truly knew what the term "spitfire" meant until I saw Nikka Costa in concert. She is the living embodiment of the word, all guts and gusto and not a single timid bone in her body. I learned this after a whirlwind performance by Ms. Costa at New York's Highline Ballroom, and it is a lesson I shan't soon forget.
It really seemed as if opening act Jesse Dee was actually a set up. Not that he wasn't as good as Nikka, he was just much different a performer. His performance was much more mellow and subdued -- think Eric Clapton or even Citizen Cope. Essentially, his performance was like lighting a room with a candle.
Nikka, on the other hand, was electric. Strutting onto the stage in a glittery, silvery top complete with feather collar and shiny black tights, she tore into "Keep Wanting More" with enough energy to get the whole room moving. And she's feisty to boot, as evidenced by her second song of the night, her current EP's title track "Pro*Whoa." The song is filled with raunchy come-ons and Nikka reveled in them as she wiggled and writhed across the stage like a wild child.
Even slight technical difficulties couldn't hamper Nikka's show. A problem with Highline's sound system had her stalling and talking with the audience. When it seemed nothing could be done, she said "eff it" (literally) and continued, doing her stateside breakthrough "Like a Feather." The song still maintained its funky charm despite the constant feedback reverberation throughout. Just like the video, she kicked the mic stand around as she growled and hollered.
"Nylons in a Rip" was a fun time on stage. The song, which was pretty much made to be performed live, rocked like no other as she and the band paraded it around the stage and added an impromptu group drum solo at the end (answering the question of why the extra drums were on the stage).
Taking a break to sip some hot tea, the soft opening guitar of "Push and Pull" was heard. "Where's the guy who asked for this earlier?" she asked, searching for a guy who yelled for it while they were trying to figure out the sound situation earlier. "This is it!" she said as the song kicked off. After inviting the audience to sing along to the chorus, she ended the song with its emotive wail. She then changed gears for the slinky, funky "Cantneverdidnuthin'." The song took full advantage of her afroed bass player and her trombonist, whose playing throughout the show threatened to upstage the rest of the band more than a few times.
Just as she was instructing the audience on how to shout the refrain of "Keep Pushin'," she spotted an audience member sending a text message. After teasingly giving him what for (which increased the evening's ever-rising F-bomb count by at least four), she broke into the funky song from . Soon, though, she was onto "Happy in the Morning," a song that found her winding it on stage like she was auditioning at ATL's Magic City.
"Everybody's Got Their Something" was next and, by the crowd's reaction, was what they came to hear. Not one to disappoint, Nikka and her band put their collective foot in it, giving the song even more energy and then funking it up with a little bit of James Brown showmanship for effect. She then topped off the performance with a stirring rendition of "Can't Please Everybody" before exiting stage left.
The crowd played what I like to call the encore game after her exit (seriously, is there anything more annoying, just return to the stage already) before Nikka and company returned to play two slower numbers, like a cool down to the previous songs' aerobic workout. The highlight was "Love to Love You Less," an ode to the man that you can't stand yet can't stand to live without. She performed this one with just her, the guitarist, and the trombonist, making it feel as if it was at a speakeasy and not a venue in Manhattan.
Nikka's performance was nothing but fun from start to finish. At the end of the show, it felt as if I was covered in as much sweat as Costa herself. A true sign of a great performer, Nikka made sure that the stage (and her audience) has been worked that night.
[Photos: Sean J. Rhinehart]