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John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Cassandra Wilson

There was an ongoing riff that Cassandra Wilson revisited during her first appearance at the Kennedy Center. It was blues-based, of course, but originating not from the bandstand. Instead, she riffed on various audience members as they continuously drifted in the Eisenhower Theater. “D.C. is one of my favorite cities,” Wilson claimed right before teasing the latecomers. “I’ll just talk for awhile as some of you late people come through. I understand.”

I’m quite sure that underneath Wilson’s cool veneer was steaming frustration, especially given her diva status. But in some ways, the late drifters seemed appropriate, considering Wilson’s repertoire. She refurbished a sublime mixture of gutbucket blues, twangy country and rueful R&B classics. If you closed your eyes, you could easily envisioned yourself in some sweltering, rowdy, over-packed Mississippi Delta juke-joint–shotgun house style with a rusting tin roof, dusty pinewood floors and all the illegal booze your body can consume–with incessant stragglers leisurely coming and going.

Wilson tried her best to conjure up such as vibe, especially when she dove into Robert Johnson’s lowdown “32.20” blues and Muddy Waters’ sultry “Honey Bee.” Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and Wilson’s longtime percussionist Jeffrey Haynes concocted the perfect locomotive grooves against Reginald Veal’s molasses-thick bass lines. Guitarist and banjoist Brandon Ross stretched chords over the grooves or plucked swaggering syncopated rhythms as harmonica player Gregoire Maret effectively evoked the testifyin’ blues one moment and then the sounds of an accordion or a didgeridoo.

In the midst of all the aural splendor, Wilson tried to summon up some good ol’ “call & response” interaction with the audience–the kind that you’d get had when been in some Delta juke joint–but they were too reluctant and reticent. Indeed, it’s a difficult task to get “down home” in a posh performance space in which its program book has a page titled “Golden Rules” that lists 10 primers on audience etiquette, one of being, “THOU SHALT NOT TALK, or hum, or sing along, or beat time with a body part.”

Obviously these are for classical audiences, and OK, I get the “no talk,” but how are we suppose to feel Wilson when she laments on loving a married man in “If Loving You Is Wrong” or when she sings on “32.20” of her cheatin’ man, “coming home, looking all wrong with matted hair,” if we can’t shout with her? And it was due, in part, to such “audience etiquette,” that neutered a good portion of Wilson’s performance. She shimmied and did the funky butt along to the percolating grooves, cajoled with the band, but it took a while for that vibrant energy to transmit into the audience. Transmission problems weren’t entirely because of the audience’s stately demeanor; the band battled throughout the concert with sound problems, which sometimes left Maret’s delicate harmonica and Ross’ spidery lines inaudible. Unfortunately, the sound mishaps won out with Wilson abruptly ending her encore performance of “Until” because of them.

But when Wilson and the audience did connect, the air tingled with electricity, especially when she sang the Monkees’ hit “Last Train to Clarksville” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” which was inflected slightly with a go-go bounce. By the time she arrived at Willie Nelson’s painfully beautiful “Crazy,” Wilson had the audience eating out of her hand, often engaging in light-hearted banter between songs as laggard audience members fumbled through the isles, looking for their seats.

Originally Published