“I will not commit nor will I submit to musical genocide,” Gregory Porter sang Saturday afternoon at the 11th annual Summer Spirit Festival. The burly jazz singer with the bushy beard and the weird black cap with ear flaps and a chin strap was pledging his devotion to the musics that are too often forgotten in this brave new world of hip-hop and dance-pop. “Give me a blues song,” he continued. “Tell the world what’s wrong. And what about the gospel singer, heavenly messages of love? And, oh, the soul man with your heart in his hand.”
The Summer Spirit Festival, held each August at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, is an unusual event, for it is devoted to rhythm & blues not as a nostalgic art form from the past but as a living, vibrant genre still finding ways to surprise us. This is not a festival where acts from Motown, Stax and Atlantic Records in the ‘60s are trotted out to do their old hits one more time. This is a showcase for artists who got started in the 1990s or 2000s to bring their newest creations to the stage.
The festival has always emphasized the progressive wing of the neo-soul movement: those artists who shrug off the clichés of diva warbling, sexual come-ons and robotic dance grooves to invent new ways of making music. Past headliners at the festival have included D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Anthony Hamilton and Floetry; this year’s headliners Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Janelle Monae and the Roots were returning after past appearances. This approach has been so successful that this year the festival expanded from one day to two.
Porter may come out of the jazz world, but he has never been shy about his admiration for soul singers such as Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield—and their influence is obvious in his approach. On Saturday Porter segued from a radical, acoustic-bass-driven arrangement of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” into “Musical Genocide.” At the end of the latter song, he begged that artists such as Hathaway, John Coltrane, Abbey Lincoln and Earth, Wind & Fire not be forgotten. His version of “On My Way to Harlem” included nods to both Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye and segued into Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which sounded timeless in an arrangement featuring tenor sax and acoustic piano.
But Porter was not paying tribute to the past so much as drawing strength from it, for the title tune from his recent album, Take Me to the Alley, is as good a song as we’ll get this year. When he describes a Pope Francis type figure forsaking the glitzy part of town to visit “the afflicted ones,” Porter lifts his voice atop a gospel-soul melody reconfigured by jazz harmony into something new.
Just as Porter comes out of the jazz scene, the Roots come out of hip-hop. But Jimmy Fallon’s house band has such close ties to the neo-soul movement via collaborators such as Badu, Scott and D’Angelo that the Philly group was a natural fit for the festival. And the Roots’ set Sunday was a perfect illustration of how they reach out to many different genres to make connections. Washington rapper DJ Kool made a guest appearance, as did an unidentified EDM DJ. The band’s guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas sang and soloed on an impressive rock number.
This was the expanded, Fallon Show version of the Roots with two keyboardists, two percussionists and three horn players. Even when lead vocalist Black Thought was spitting out his motor-mouth raps on numbers such as “Get Busy,” the live band behind him played with a human elasticity that drew directly from R&B.
The Roots’ one-time collaborator Badu closed the Saturday festivities. With a black beret clamped atop an afro so large it obscured her shoulders and a black-leather jacket over a rainbow-colored coat, Badu was once again the visual personification of African-American bohemia. It was part of her strategy to cast off the burden of divahood and present a more personal, down-to-earth brand of neo-soul. She reinforced this approach with her impish sense of humor, cheerful vulgarity and conversational vocals.
Using her fingers to stab at the sampler beside her, she kicked off songs such as “Me,” “Trill Friends” and “Time’s a Wastin’” before her three singers and five instrumentalists to catch up. Once they did, she used her seductive purr to lure the listener in before pulling the rug out from under one with a sharp insult or an unexpected turn in the story. Badu embodied the unpredictability that keeps a genre like R&B fresh.
But the best set of the weekend was turned in by Janelle Monae. Monae had worked directly with Prince, the longtime leader of R&B’s left wing, before he died. Now in his absence, Monae is keeping his spirit alive in her manic dance moves, afro-futurist lyrics and rock-inflected arrangements. On Saturday she reprised “Givin’ Them What They Love,” recorded as a duet with Prince, as well as “Let’s Go Crazy” from the Purple Rain soundtrack (the Roots would sample “Kiss” during their set).
Even when she was performing her own compositions, Monae seemed to be channeling the best aspects of Prince—not just in the piercing vocals and sleek propulsion of her songs but also in her willingness to push whatever boundaries she bumped up against. She first appeared in a natty black-and-white outfit with perfectly coiffed hair, but by the end of her no-holds-barred show, her shirt was soaking wet and her hair completely unraveled. “I’m too much a rebel, never do what I’m supposed to,” she sang on “Yoga.”
“You cannot police me, so get off my areola.” R&B will never die out as long as it boasts artists as creatively eccentric as this.
Not every singer at the Summer Spirit Festival was so inventive, however. Jill Scott, Avery Sunshine and Leela James, who all began their careers with such promise, have now succumbed to the conventionality of divahood. All weekend long they never met an opportunity for over-singing that they could resist. Fatlin Dantzler and Aja Graydon, the married couple that leads Kindred and the Family Soul, are trying hard to be the neo-soul Ashford & Simpson. The newcomers have the voices but not the songs.
Bella Donna, the all-female go-go band from D.C., was more appealing as a concept than as a sonic experience. This was made all the clearer when the Chuck Brown Band, who have kept going since their namesake died in 2012, proved just how compelling top-quality go-go music can be.