Everything has a context and sometimes it’s more important than others. Located in the gentrifying Western Addition neighborhood, which was decades ago home to San Francisco’s jazz district, is Yoshi’s Jazz Club. On this Wednesday evening I saw Alice Russell, a British funk singer with a style comparable to her female contemporaries Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. Imagining hearing Allen at a jazz club might seem strange, but might be fitting for Winehouse if the place were dark and seedy enough–but hearing Alice Russell at Yoshi’s was surprisingly more fitting than expected.
Yoshi’s, with its modern elegance and ten dollar cocktails attracts a maturer crowd who drink martinis over bottled beers. The club is filled with round tables, with groups of at least three huddled around them drinking their one drink minimums. Russell walks onto the stage wearing a black sequin dress, with a red flower in her hair–an appearance reminiscent of a 1960s jazz singer. For most of the night listeners sit, while Russell and her band play, with those dancing moving to exit rows along the side walls. A feeling of rigidity seems to loom over the crowd, as though this were an opera or a Wynton Marsalis show. The feeling is contagious as the band members sway side to side as though this were their first public recital.
Typically, Alice Russell puts on an energized performance, however this show began in a tentative manner. During the first half of the show the band moves stiffly, and a need for formality seemed to preoccupy them as Russell introduced each song. While their music is animated, they seem lost in front of the crowd. Russell stood firmly in front, rapping her feet almost anxiously, but tentative to move around the stage. By the third song Russell had had enough, “You guys need to move your body, otherwise we get shy,” she exclaimed. She then played “Hold On Tight” a song written during her stint with Quantic Orchestra. The fast rhythm and funky guitar rifts spread across the audience, invigorating what seemed to be a dying crowd. As Russell sang, a gripping aura like the feeling that makes you turn twice for a second glance, surrounded her.
In written context, it seems understandable, if not expected, that a show might begin slowly and build; however, this assumption would disregard a unique aspect of this show. The initial stuffiness and formality of the show might be understood as parallel to the unease by which Yoshi’s has contributed in gentrifying a poor and downtrodden neighborhood that once was a thriving black community for jazz. Couple this fact with Alice Russell–a white, British singer playing a style of music made famous by artists like James Brown and Parliament, and the performance might understood within the context of a historical and contemporary conundrum of black culture being resold and packaged. This is important to note because like a venue differing in size, which would result in a different emotional connection between performer and audience, the space for this show directly affected how the show was heard and interpreted.
Praise must then be awarded to Alice Russell and her band to supersede this unusual stuffiness. In particular, the band’s cover of “Seven Nation Army,” a song originally by the White Stripes, hit a chord of familiarity with the crowd, and at the end of the cover the band member raised one arm in unity followed by a roaring applause. From this point on the energy in the room changed, as more members of audiences’ moved towards the exit isles to dance. As though both the audience and band released a big sigh, Russell began dancing in circles with her band bobbing their heads like a gesture of encouragement. The show became more playful as one of the band members, a tall and broad man, began strumming away on a ukulele, and singing in a high pitch voice. With each song it seemed a different musician took center stage, and as the pianist took his turn he wasted no time exciting the crowd with his vocal box rendition of a Seasame Street song. If at first Russell’s performance fit the context of the changing environment, by the end of the show, her performance more accurately reflected the fun and excitement of funk music. It’s easy to describe the social barriers that separate us, but it’s harder to imagine the power of music that breaks them. As the audience forgot their surroundings it was Russell’s music who consumed them.