The Chicago Voices concert on February 4, 2017 aimed to showcase the talent and breadth of Chicago singers, all in a single concert. It managed to do that admirably, though several obvious performers were conspicuously absent (Kanye West, Chance the Rapper). The Lyric Opera House was transformed from a theater to a concert arena in a surprisingly effective way – lights danced and smoke filled the colorful but muted stage.
The show opened with Shemekia Copeland singing “The Battle is Over (But the War Goes On)” – a rousing song with political undertones that pervaded the show, more or less subtly depending on the performer. The power of Shemekia’s voice is incredible – you can feel her tearing each note in two as she sings, without any sign of strain or difficulty. She is a performer for whom a live performance gives so much more than any studio recording could offer.
She was followed by Kurt Elling. His improv scat was enjoyable, but his voice, carriage, and song selection made you feel like you had just stepped out of a time machine. Lovely, but more than one person commented to me, “I didn’t know there were still people who did that.”
Renee Fleming made a beautiful first entrance, wearing a glittering green Vivienne Westwood gown, in a tribute to the late great Mary Garden. A recording of Mary Garden singing Beau Soir began as Renee Fleming walked on stage. The recording faded out, and Renee picked up the song and carried it to the end. Beautifully done, and by far the most clever use of multi-media I’ve seen in a concert. However, she followed it with a rendition of “Summertime” that was even more self-indulgent that that piece usually is. And given that this was at a mostly white concert about Chicago music, it struck a wrong note with me.
Jessie Mueller performed “She Used To Be Mine,” the hit song from her current hit musical, Waitress. Jessie really showed why she won a Tony – she showed all of her vocal tricks in this one song, while exuding pathos. How she expressed a reluctant pregnancy while wearing a cut-out dress that revealed her perfect figure is
Perhaps the most emotional song of the night was “Hello In There,” performed by an aging John Prine. How we wrote this and performed it 46 years ago in 1971, I don’t know. But now, as an elderly man still agilely plucking the strings of his acoustic guitar, the song holds a personal touch. The entire house was as hushed as I have ever heard it, as though nobody wanted to end that moment.
Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco sang “Kick, Push,” a love-story based around a skateboard. He brought energy and style to the stage, but it’s hard to imagine a more incongruous sight than a rapper on an opera stage, performing to an aging white audience. It was obvious that the organizers were avoiding obvious political statements and adult-only performances, so the world of rap was limited. However, it was perhaps the most representative performance of Chicago today, and it’s a shame he only performed the one song.
Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child fame sang gospel, supported by the Voices of Trinity Mass Choir. She did as much as she could with a relatively small voice, and she led the choir with energy. The Handsome Family performed their haunting hit “Far From Any Road.” While Brett Sparks’ deep voice was compelling, if not up to the technical skills of the other performers, Rennie Sparks was the obvious weak point of the show. Their songs and lyrics are compelling, but it was unfair to ask Rennie Sparks to sing “My Turn Baby” with powerhouses Jessie Mueller and Shemekia Copeland. Matthew Polenzani’s voice was lovely as ever, but he suffered from song selection. The evening was light on foreign-language performances, and his attempts at crossover staples were enjoyable but not Earth-shattering.
In addition to the vocal talent, celebrities also made appearances. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, though awkward during his teleprompter introduction of a video on Mahalia Jackson, his final benediction of the evening was moving: “The water is deep, but you only drown when you stop kicking. And we aren’t even gonna stop kicking.” Similarly, a duet version of “A Change is Gonna Come” by Empire stars Jussie Smollett and Terence Howard suffered from lack of coordination, but more than made up for that in power and emotion. The two ended the song with raised fists, a silent salute to protests past and current.
In all, the show was a tour-de-force of Chicago talent, and a delight to listen to. But it suffered from a lack of grit that represents true city life to most of the population. The black performers were conspicuous in being the only ones to choose songs with a political theme. It was hard not to think, while surrounded by the Baroque decorations and red carpet of the Lyric Opera House, of the living and breathing street music you can’t avoid while walking around Chicago. An impressive showcase, but somehow missing the actual heart of the city.
The concert will air on WTTW – Channel 11 on March 30, 2017.
I was seated next to Howard Reich, music critic for the Chicago Tribune. His review is a nice description of the performance, but more glowing than I thought it deserved.