LIVE: Lizz Wright @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 1/26/19
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
For many years, I had an ongoing Excel spreadsheet that listed every concert & festival I’d ever seen going back to 1972. I say “had” because when my Mac’s hard drive went over the Rainbow Bridge last August, that spreadsheet was one of many things that turned into a mushroom cloud. As a result, I have only my bedraggled memory to rely on when I say Lizz Wright is the first vocalist I’ve seen at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall – and if that is, in fact, the case, I couldn’t have asked for a better initial experience.
I’ve loved Wright since I first saw the Georgia native at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival back in 2005. She’d just put out her second Verve disc Dreaming While Awake, and while there were a few rookie mistakes in her performance, there was no denying that this was a performer with a bagful of potential and a bright, shining future. Since then, she has released four more discs (including her most recent effort, 2017’s Grace) and made a triumphant appearance at Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival in 2009. As the sizable crowd at The Hall saw, that aforementioned potential has been well and truly fulfilled.
After her stellar quartet created a beautifully layered groove, Wright walked out onstage and eased into “Somewhere Down the Mystic,” wrapping us in an alto voice that you want to soak in like it’s a hot tub. As they would throughout the night, the quartet – guitarist Chris Bruce, drummer Michael Jerome Moore, bassist Ben Zwerin and keyboardist Kenny Bates – built a perfect platform for Wright to work from, raising and lowering the energy to whatever level she needed to keep the audience smiling. If the music wasn’t enough to keep our attention, Wright’s own palpable magnetism was more than enough to keep our focus on the center of the stage.
While their approaches are radically different, Wright has a lot in common with Aretha Franklin, in that church is at the root of everything she touches, be it jazz or rock or R&B. From Wright’s transformation of the Neil Young classic “Old Man” to her soaring rendition of Aretha’s own “Climbing Higher Mountains,” every piece was filled with a gratitude for something much bigger, without which none of this would be possible. That gratitude extends to the Georgia childhood that inspired Grace, and is embodied in Wright’s rich, vibrant take on Allan Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” – a song that Glen Campbell pretty much ruined for me, but Wright most definitely redeemed.
Bruce has been a constant throughout Wright’s recording career, while Bates was a big part of her last three releases. As such, they were uniquely qualified for the role of the vocalist’s dueling foils: Bruce’s understated solo on “Barley” was perfect for the circumstances, and his rising guitar led the band’s unified attack on “Old Man.” Bates’ keyboards were the prime drivers on the uncut blasts of church that were Wright’s righteous versions of “Walk With Me, Lord” and the regular set-closing “Singing in My Soul.” Wright also called Bates “my piano teacher” as she took over the instrument for a riveting encore take on Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” Bates stood by the piano, swaying and smiling, and applauded at the end like a proud parent.
Where the big thing in Classic Rock is the Power Ballad, the big thing with Lizz Wright is the Solar Power Ballad: Everything she does pulses with a lovely sunlit glow that warms and cares for you, empowering the good things in your head and healing the bad ones. In a winter that is bitter on all possible levels, the soft heat filled Troy Savings Bank Music Hall was just what the doctor ordered. Let’s hope I don’t need an Excel spreadsheet to remember it down the road.