Looking inward, India.Arie indulges and impresses
Since her 2001 debut, R&B singer India.Arie has piled up platinum sales and Grammy awards like most musicians can only dream about, even those musicians talented and ambitious enough to attend Berklee, where Arie performed on Wednesday with Idan Raichel, the Israeli pianist-composer-singer. In turn, the sell-out crowd was an artist’s dream, both for its polite engagement (the crowd patiently let Arie indulge in five minutes of intense stretching before she began singing) and for its notable diversity (the 1,215-seat theater was packed with all ages, sexes, races, and, judging from the sound of it, nations).
Even so, the entire show was a conscious response to Arie’s deep ambivalence about “the last 10 years of my life.’’
As she explained in one of many disquisitions, she met Raichel in Israel while mulling “temporary retirement’’ in response to the tension “between the artistic and commercial worlds.’’ Instead, the meeting led to this “Open Door’’ tour, largely comprising unreleased collaborations from an album slated for spring 2012 release.
Unlike her earlier R&B, the collaborations feature a little Middle Eastern flavoring and a lot of international pop blandishment. As Arie, Raichel, and their accomplished band performed them, the new songs were impressively detailed, moderately catchy, and thoroughly vapid.
Of course, vapidity has its distinguished pop uses, but Arie treated pat niceties like “This is my prayer for humanity / That we can live in harmony,’’ as if they were profound declarations without need of metaphor, contrast, or any other bracing device to spark insight. Raichel underscored the effect with his meandering tinkling, so in the end, the concert came off like two hours of melismatic, New Age variations on “It’s a Small World (After All).’’
“Thank you for letting me be weird tonight,’’ Arie said at show’s end, recalling Lauryn Hill’s 2002 MTV unplugged performance, in which another R&B sensation also rebelled against success.
But unlike Hill, Arie retained full mastery of her talents onstage, whether playing flute or guitar, or dipping effortlessly across octaves with her slightly burred, honey-toned voice. At one point, she showed how those talents made her famous. While most of the band rested, Arie’s two background singers came up front to join her on “Complicated Melody,’’ and the three singers turned this 2002 tribute to a good man into a loose celebration of their great skills. It was over too soon.
Franklin Soults can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.