It is rare to see a legendary artist perform at a 1,350-seat venue. So it was quite a treat to see Chaka Khan at the Birchmere Music Hall on Monday, November 29, for the first of two sold-out shows. It was advertised as a performance with a jazz quartet, so I was expecting to see piano, drums, bass, and guitar. I was somewhat thrown off by the set up with two keyboards, drums, bass guitar, a saxophone, and 5 mic stands!
My dismay was immediately alleviated when the show started, with the familiar opening to “High Wire (The Aerialist),” the high-spirited tune that Chick Corea wrote for Chaka for the ECHOES OF AN ERA recording of 1982. The diva made her entrance to a rousing ovation, looking fit and ready. Any real Chakaholic knows that her voice was not in primo form for that recording, so it is always dynamite to hear her really give that song its due. The band, ably led by long-time Musical Director Melvin Davis, was up to the task, and provided all the support she needed. True to form, Chaka continued with the luscious “I’ll Be Around,” followed by a heartfelt “To Sir With Love” from her CLASSIKHAN CD, which she dedicated to her father who recently passed away.
For “My Funny Valentine,” she welcomed her four background singers – four of the most seasoned of her illustrious cadre of singers – Lisa Vaughan, Audrey Wheeler, Karen Bernod, and Lisa’s sister Kelli Collins. These women provided the mandatory wall-of-sound, recreating the WAITING TO EXHALE arrangement of this Rodgers and Hart classic.
At this point in the show, Chaka took a giant artistic leap, and delivered four songs by one of her favorite songwriters, Joni Mitchell. Mitchell’s songs are richly lyrical and artfully melodic, and Chaka had a wonderful time offering her version of ”The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” “Two Grey Rooms,” “Man From Mars,” and “Ladies Man.” I imagined that she has sung these songs for years--in the car and around the house--and relished the opportunity to include them in her show. It was a bold and welcome change from the norm, and she commented about being able to sing the songs that she loves. She has definitely earned that right.
Chaka’s demeanor for the show was very relaxed, and the intimacy allowed free flowing conversation with the audience members who were seated at tables close to the stage. This gave more weight to the candid revelation that the lyrics to the song “Angel,” from her FUNK THIS project, were written in an altered state and found years later in a notebook. With lyrics like, “always re-arranging the wreckage of her life…” it is definitely one of her most personal and revealing songs. “Everlasting Love” was another opportunity to show off the skill of everyone on stage, followed by “Through The Fire,” which has evolved from a love ballad into a moment of testimony.
After polling the audience for requests, which ranged from “Night In Tunisia,” “I’m Every Woman,” “Hollywood,” and “Stay,” Chaka sang an a cappella “Fool’s Paradise,” but relied on the crowd for the lyrics. She comically praised our “total recall,” then settled on “Tell Me Something Good,” where she allowed the four singers to individually show off how they got the gig.
Finishing off with the encore, the eternal “Ain’t Nobody,” Chaka left the stage in a wail of glory, exiting the building through a side door.
It was a memorable night, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if she completely foregoes the hits and focuses on doing a show of songs like the Mitchell songs, or even songs from her own catalog, like “Earth Song,” “Destiny,” "BeBop Medley," or “Close The Door.” I think Ms. Khan would find that her devotees would enjoy hearing those songs as much as she would enjoy singing them.
About the Writer
Michael Lewis is a long-time associate at SoulMusic.com. His industry experience includes Sony Music, Motown and La Face Records, and a tenure at HEAR Music. He is grateful to contribute to sustaining the legacy of R&B and soul music.