It's no wonder director Tyler Perry thought that Jill Scott could be a strong actress in his 2007 film "Why Did I Get Married?" Anyone who's seen the honey-voiced soul diva do her thing onstage knows she is a storyteller of the highest order. The kind who burrows deep into the emotions of her songs but never holds the audience at arm's length, instead inviting them to get down into the groove with her and maybe learn something about themselves along the way, whether they like it or not.
Last night at the Orpheum Theatre Scott held a sold-out crowd in thrall for more than two hours, showing off not only her poetic flair and jazzy inflections but also her expert comic timing and hard-won truths.
Surrounded by a large band, including a three-piece horn section and three backup vocalists, Scott - looking radiant in a figure-hugging black dress - began with her breezy manifesto of inclusivity "Let It Be." Whatever your style, she crooned, "If it's deeper soul/If it's rock 'n' roll/spiritual/factual/beautiful/political/somethin' to roll to/let it be." And that's just what she did, knitting all of the above into a seamless whole.
There was the sizzling rock guitar of "The Real Thing," the buttery funk bass of "Gimme," and the lonely piano of the night's first peak, "Cross My Mind." Recalling an old love and the beautiful music they made before things went off-key, Scott transitioned from hilariously steamy reminiscing to aching wistfulness with breathtaking grace.
Unlike some of her peers, the North Philly native expresses her erotic longings without descending into raunch, even at her most explicit on a track such as "Come See Me" in which she convinced most of the women in the crowd to execute a salacious hip move with a refreshing giddiness.
But as funny and real as Scott is when she's bantering like the sassiest agony aunt ever - opening up about her divorce or doling out advice about the healing powers of self-love - her biggest gift remains her voice. Whether bending and sculpting her notes with style but not ostentation on the sing-song jam "Long Walk," beating back negativity with a growl on "Hate on Me," or reliving the anguish of "other woman"-hood with a wail on "My Love," Scott showed laser-like precision, recalling forebears such as Minnie Riperton and Anita Baker. That she is able to amplify it with her onstage magnetism makes for a powerful package.
While some in attendance may not have been familiar with opener Raheem DeVaughn, he rectified that with a whole-hearted performance that found him running into the crowd during the female empowerment anthem "Woman." With a big band of his own, a sign language interpreter, several paintings on easels - plus a live painter - the R&B crooner got the evening off to a stylish start.