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Erykah & Esperanza: Grasping and Reaching for That Certain Pop Feeling

J.D. Swerzenski
Contributing Writer

I had the good fortune this past weekend to catch both Esperanza Spalding and Erykah Badu live. Now the circumstances of these two shows—location, audience, vibe—were worlds apart; however their chronological proximity to each other (and a story idea planted by Nextbop editor ADH) got me connecting the two in a way I had never considered. I’ll spare you the obligatory biography of both artists, as I’m pretty sure both are known quantities around these parts (and if not, I’m pretty sure there are internets for that sort of thing). But clearly Erykah and Esperanza came up in vastly different ways: Badu through the neo-soul movement of the mid-90s, Spalding through the jazz world towards the later half of the 2000s.

However, both shows left me with the sense that both artists were aiming for the same sort of thing, a sort of genre-less amalgam of jazz, R&B, hip-hop and pop. Considering both Badu and Spalding’s latest records, this shouldn’t have surprised me. Both have shown a penchant for expanding beyond their established sound in favor of a more nebulous sonic palette. But considering my varying level of enjoyment of both those records, I should have also anticipated what show I would have liked more.

First, Erykah. Playing to a packed house at Austin’s Moody Theater (regular site of the Austin City Limits tapings), her set kicked off as a party and never let up. The woman owned the stage. There was little in the way of stage banter, a move that seemed to increase her enigmatic magnetism. Badu dressed many of the songs, often by building the beats herself with a sampler (though it certainly didn’t hurt that her band was crack, or that it included this dude). Running through a career spanning set, it was a thrilling, transcendent, splen... well, enough platitudes. I clearly dug it.

Then there was Esperanza. With her 11-piece Radio Music Society band in tow, Spalding took to San Antonio’s Lila Cockrell Theater, a venue typically reserved for opera and ballet performances. Also worthy of note, the show was preceded by a charity gala, which added to formalistic feel of the whole scene. Having meticulously designed her whole show around the radio theme of the record, there were some fun set pieces and while her band did occasionally steal the show out from under her (particularly these two guys), Esperanza’s chops on both bass and vocals ensured she remained the star attraction.

But it didn’t seem to add up. And at first, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why: both front-women and their band’s were bursting with talent and both came in with a back catalog stocked enough to keep just about any audience happy. So how did Erykah kill it and Esperanza leave me feeling flat?

Certainly the venue factors in, but that just belies another question. Why was Esperanza in an concert hall that most recently staged Romeo and Juliet and Erykah in a venue with a half dozen bars within striking distance of the her? To my view, it has to do with the balance between serious and pop music, which can be boiled down to the struggle to get someone to artistically appreciate your music and shake their ass to it. Badu has worked from pop to serious for the past decade and seems to have found the equilibrium. Esperanza, working from the heady confines of jazz, seems to be working furiously in the other direction, in a way that too often feels forced and more than a little outside her comfort zone, or at least is just a bit faster than her audience is willing to go with her.

One last note to throw a kink in things. I considered how this piece may have been different should Erykah and Esperanza switched venues, and even more specifically, how Spalding and her band were received at the much more party ready ACL Festival this weekend. I was a bit shocked to run across this, an account from an equally disappointed reviewer who wondered if Spalding and crew wouldn’t have been better suited to, yep, a concert hall. So no telling if there really is a venue ideal for the Radio Music Society. But then again, Esperanza is still 27, a full decade and a half behind Badu in age and stage experience. Expecting her to hold an audience with the same ease as Erykah at this stage in her career is unrealistic, especially for someone as artistically restless as Spalding. And while I left the Lila Cockrell Theater this past Saturday with a feeling of what could have been rather than what was, when it comes to an artist as remarkably gifted as Esperanza Spalding, know that I’ll be there every time she swings through town to witness her progress.

Esperanza Spalding - Crowned & Kissed Live at ACL Festival

J.D. Swerzenski is the operations manager of KRTU San Antonio and a contributor to the San Antonio Current.