ANAHEIM, CA – Just like the title to a song on this acoustic soul singer’s most recent Voyage To India album, India.Arie in concert was a beautiful surprise. On this night, she gave her audience an unpredictable, yet still satisfying, performance. Sure, she tended to ramble on a bit -- both in word and in song -- but even these sometimes uneven side roads contributed to a fulfilling artistic journey overall. Anaheim ain’t exactly India, but India.Arie somehow turned this conservative Orange County venue into a little bit of aural exotica -- for one evening, at least.
At one point during the show, India.Arie explained how she grew up in the distinctly non-urban Colorado until she was 13, before relocating to the more urban-friendly surroundings of Atlanta. She also shared why these unlikely ethnic roots made for a severe lack of diehard soul in her musical diet, especially during these all-important developing years. This unusual environmental background helps explain why exposure to video outlets like MTV and VH1 have so strongly influenced the artist’s sound, and is one of the primary factors differentiating what she does from other more stereotypical R&B artists who may have been reared in choir lofts of Black churches instead. Much like Prince, who was raised on equal parts midwestern rock and Funkadelic during his youth in Minnesota, India.Arie was blessed with a pleasantly unlikely combination of musical influences. Hers may not be the usual recipe for soul music success, but these ingredients have still somehow added up to a tasty stew.
During one of her many entertaining and informative dialogue detours, India.Arie jokingly stated that she writes what sound like country songs, and then sings them like a gospel singer. This is why her rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s "True Colors" (which was one of many covers, or snippets of covers this night) made it sound all her own. Along the way, she also sang a bit of Sade here, some Bill Withers there, and a large chunk of Al Green elsewhere. Such miniature musical tribute moments gave the audience a roadmap sketch of just where India.Arie’s particular take on music comes from.
While it was fun to hear her sing a few personal favorites, India.Arie -- who plays skilled acoustic guitar, flute (and many more instruments she just didn’t have space for in a concert setting) -- shined brightest when she settled in to perform her own songs, especially the material from the new album. In some cases, only a drummer and her own guitar work accompanied her. Yet somehow, these unplugged sections never sounded like they were missing anything instrumentally at all.
She encored with an older one called "Brown Skin," which quickly evolved into an ethnic pride sing-along from this primarily African-American audience. But the newer "Slow Down," which is all about taking life easier, and "Good Man," which is an insightful character study of a man who has left his young family behind, offered sound proof of India.Arie’s quickly developing songwriting skills.
Watching India.Arie in concert is an opportunity to witness her fast-track artistic growth in action. In a way, it felt like watching basketball star Kobe Bryant as a rookie: It’s scary to realize she will only get better.