School may still be out for summer, but Lalah Hathaway gave a performance that could be called a master class in R&B on Friday, August 1st at Yoshi’s in Oakland. She’s part of an exclusive club of vocal royalty consisting of artists like, Rachelle Ferrell, Ledisi, Kim Burrell and Lizz Wright. Her sold out show was not about flashy choreography, cameo appearances or audio-visual stunts, but a lesson on the power of mastering your voice and live instruments in R&B music.
The first part of the evening’s lesson was on stage presence and vocal control. Sassy, youthfully playful, yet commanding in presence, Hathaway immediately took control of the room, setting the mood for the evening with some of her smoothed out adult R&B stylings from her self-titled debut release, like “Baby Don’t Cry.” She exhibited such tremendous control with her voice as she manipulated the acoustics of the room, creating echoes and subtle reverberations only a vocalist of her training can do. She scatted, melodically and softly, like calming a child with a lullaby, before revving up for some true vocal acrobatics.
It was then time for her to show us the art of vocal range. Her rendition of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Summertime” showcased her stunning range as well as that of background vocalist Jason Morales. They engaged in a vocal tennis match of sorts, going back and forth projecting a variety of whistling sounds, manipulating their vocal chords in one of the most entertaining exchanges of the evening.
She even gave a history lesson performing a medley of “vintage R&B.” She made sure to let folks know that there's a difference between what she was doing on stage and “what’s on the radio passing as R&B.” She and her band guided the audience through a nostalgic string of timeless R&B hits like “Angel” by Anita Baker, "Yearning for Your Love" by The Gap Band and "Love’s Holiday" by Earth, Wind & Fire.
My favorite part of the night was where she showed everybody in Yoshi’s how to truly hold a note. While the room was rockin’ like an old school house party during her vintage R&B vignette, the atmosphere transformed as she transitioned into the fan favorite “I’m Coming Back.” There was a silence in the room, as if everyone there was playing a game of Operation at the exact same time, concentrating on every note, heads bobbing in syncopation, not wanting to miss a moment, with an occasional outburst of clapping breaking out as she chose to extend notes where most vocalists would flame out.
She continued this lesson during her performance of “Forever, For Always, For Love.” This is the song that the true Lalah Heads had come for, and like any artist, what did she do? She teased us with anticipation. Starting, then stopping to talk to someone with the audience, or engage in some other playful distraction, it was like she handed the audience a birthday gift and kept pulling it back before we could grab a hold of it. But, when she went in, she tore the roof off, extending notes to the point where all you could do is clap or turn up your face in a combination of bewilderment and amazement.
Now that she had given a thorough dissertation on the vocal arts, she highlighted her guitarist, Jairus Mozee, to teach us about the musicality involved in real R&B. Mosley’s solo was electrifying, ranging from soul-stirring blues guitar licks to an adulterated Jimi Hendrix-like rock-out session. Almost as if the guitar was pulling him forward, he glided from the back of the stage to the front, leading Hathaway to gracefully step back and allow him to show the rest of us why she chose him as her guitarist. He immediately received a standing ovation, lesson learned.
Having thoroughly schooled us in the craft of singing and musicianship, she left us with one last surprise. For those who want to take home Lalah Hathaway’s amazing live experience, she announced that she would be dropping Lalah Hathaway LIVE! some time in the future and she's involving fans in the process. If you'd like to be a part of the making of Lalah Hathaway LIVE!, you can find out more about her Pledge Music campaign right here.