CONCERT REVIEW: Leela James Breaks It Down at the Highline Ballroom

If you have not heard of Leela James, get ready, because that is probably about to change. The soul/R&B singer-songwriter’s name is finding its way into the mouths of music critics and fresh fans thanks to the release of her latest single “Say That” featuring Anthony Hamilton. Since her break onto the music scene in 2005 with her debut album A Change Is Gonna Come, James has steadily built her signature brand of big soulful vocals, with big “swallow her face” hair to match. But her upcoming fifth album (slated for release in early 2014) for which “Say That” is the first single could be the charm that changes the game for James and brings her explosive brand of soulful music to the masses in a huge way.

After listening to “Say That” I couldn’t wait to see James perform the single live at NYC’s Highline Ballroom last night. You know the feeling when you hear a song and fall in love with it, so much so that the idea of experiencing said song by way of a live sonic performance keeps you up at night with excitement and anticipation? Well folks, when Leela James exploded onto the Highline Ballroom stage and started to belt out “Long Time Coming,” I knew that I was in for more than just a singular magical moment with a musician by way of a song. I was in for a treat, an hour-long party with James front and center as the jam master.

Within two minutes, everyone was up on their feet as James got James Brown on us with, “Hit me one time! Hit me two times!! Hit me three times!!!” a call that the band energetically responded to in kind in syncopated succession. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an artist explode onto the stage with such raw energy and already turned up to ten, and it was infectious. I battled with myself many moments during the show, finding myself unable to decide whether to settle my sight on James onstage or the fans who feverishly lost themselves in her music.

James incited our collective “get down” with words of encouragement from the stage, “Let’s party, everybody! Put your hands together. Everybody out your seat. You can sit down tomorrow. Stand up tonight!” It was the perfect lead-in to her second song of the night, “Good Time” which she peppered with the James Brown classic “Funky Good Time” for good measure. There were even a few moments in which James appeared to be channeling some serious James Brown with signature dance moves and grunts that conjured up memories of the late soul great.

The party was in full swing by the time James crooned, “We’re gonna party all night! We came to party all night,” as her three background singers simultaneously worked their hips and tambourines and broke it on down along with James, right down to the ground. At one particular moment in the show, it was as if Tina Turner turned up onstage, but it was James in fact, sounding all kinds of similar to the Rock ’n’ Roll Queen as she shared, “I love ya New York! I think I love you more than you love me! I’m lovin’ you more…”

James pulled out all the stops with her performance of “Music” and “My Joy”, taking just a moment to pay homage to some late greats who have inspired and influenced her with music that, she says, is in rare form presently, real music that “sticked to your ribs and made you feel good” — a la Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Al Green. It’s this music that James is on a mission to keep alive, whether or not she is acknowledged with accolades, awards, or commercial success. It’s not about that for the girl with the gift of a big, gritty, bluesy and soulful voice that sucks you in, lifts you up, and takes you to exciting places. It’s about the love of the music.

Speaking of love, I absolutely loved when James and her band broke into a funky rendition of the 1980 Yarbrough & Peoples jam “Don’t Stop the Music”, which proved to be a high point of any already charged and electric night. James slowed it down for a spell with her performance of “It’s Alright,” but the rest was a brief one. For the next song James was turned back up to ten, sharing how much of a need she had to get close to her people and see her people as she made her way down from the stage and into the crowd to croon her rendition of yet another classic, the Frankie Beverly and Maze feel-good song “Joy and Pain.” As James made her way back onto the stage she invited the audience to join her, and it was indeed a joy to see the folks/fans get their party on with her onstage and revel in this magical moment, one of many James created that evening. James turned it down and took it back as she winded down the hour-long performance, setting up another moment of magic in her show as she guided us: “Close your eyes. We gone go Down South to a juke joint…” And then it was James at her most soulful, beckoning us to go there with her as she sang, “When You Love Somebody.” James seemed as if she could go on for another hour, but as reality set in and she closed out her show with her cover of the No Doubt song “Don’t Speak” I found myself smiling, happy for the chance to see and experience this legend in the making.

[Photo Credit: NikWes]