CONCERT REVIEW: Leela James Brings Soul Classics to ATL

Leela James’ fiery

voice carries a century’s worth of Blues, Soul, and R&B history.

Since her refreshing slept-on 2005 debut [A Change Is Gonna Come],

the LA songstress has carried the figurative musical torch of her

predecessors Betty Davis, Myra Barnes, Tina Turner, and Lyn Collins.

Last Thursday (June 4), James returned to James Brown’s old Georgia

stomping grounds to remind the musically inclined that Soul music is

still alive and well.She

began by loosening everyone up with her gospel-tinged artist manifesto

“Long Time Coming.” Leela’s thundering voice reverberated the lyrics

throughout the venue, as she refused to be denied her place as a great

singer (“Crown me later, I’ma take my crown now/Been writing ten years

now/And finally the real truth is coming out”).

The

dark lighting and smoldering heat put James in her element, and she

declared her love of Southern venues before going into her vibrant

dance number “Good Time.”

“It’s hot and funky already so I know I’m in the South,” James exclaimed. “So let’s dance, c’mon!” The

crowd obliged, and Leela blessed them with an awesome extended reprise

that blended her track with the JB’s ’70s hit “Doing It to Death,” and

Rick James’ classic “Give It to Me.”

One

thing concert-goers learn early at a Leela James show is that that

sassy songstress does not tolerate “uppity” non-dancing folks at her

events. You will be called out to show your moves. During a cover of

Frankie Beverly’s “Joy and Pain,” James ordered several audience members

to hit the stage (myself included) and provide backing vocals and

grooves. No one objected, and that party was in full effect as everyone

waved their hands and sung the ’80s classic.

Leela’s latest LP, Let’s Do It Again,

is a collection of memorable soul tracks from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Not many singers today could do justice live to those tracks, but James

showed great poise in honoring the late Phyllis Hyman’s spirit before

delivering a near perfect rendition of “You Know How to Love Me.”

“She

did something that no one should ever do, and something I don’t want

any of you to ever do,” James stated on Hyman’s tragic suicide. “She

did it because she didn’t feel loved. So let’s show her that we all

still love her!”

Leela’s

memory lane trip remained poignant when she showcased her emotional

range and sincerity on difficult tracks from James Brown (“It’s a Man’s

Man’s Man’s World”) and Al Green (“Simply Beautiful”). With the former,

the feisty vocalist’s aching timbre reinterprets the ballad as a

triumphant feminist critique. On the latter, “Simply Beautiful” became

a stirring revelation of the endless depths of a woman’s love.

James

closed with her cover of Sam Cooke’s Civil Rights anthem “A Change Is

Gonna Come.” The song featured as the title track for her 2005 debut,

and has dually served the singer as a proclamation of black pride and

hope for revolutionary change in today’s music scene. Like Cooke’s

foundation as a celebrated member of the Soul Stirrers, James utilized

her church roots to increase the song’s spiritual potency through

unmistakable gospel phrasings.

At

a mere 26 years old, Leela James represents one of the most promising

voices for Soul music’s future. Of her sophomore cover album, she

explained that she wanted to give props to artists who didn’t receive

it during their heyday. Let’s hope Ms. James’ blossoming talent and

career doesn’t suffer the same fate.

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