Review: Nina Simone Plays Songs — And Audience

Veteran singer/pianist makes Boston stop on rare U.S. tour.

BOSTON — After soggy weather postponed her show by a day,

high priestess of soul Nina Simone

led a devotional service for loyal fans Wednesday in the new

FleetBoston Pavilion, a space-age tent overlooking the harbor.

"I've been waiting for 10 years to hear her again, since I saw her solo

performance in Symphony Hall," said Judy Tracy of Boston, referring to

Simone's last Beantown gig. "She was escorted onto the stage by a man

whose only job was to remove her floor-length mink."

Although fur would have been a bit much for the mild June weather,

Simone indulged the ritual by shedding a silvery shawl dripping with

fringe into the arms of another gentleman.

The evening, which began with guitarist Stanley Jordan performing a remarkably versatile solo set, was the fourth in her U.S. tour: Atlanta (May 26), Washington, D.C. (May 30), and New York (June 2) boasted sold-out shows, with Philadelphia (June 10), Chicago (June 18), Los Angeles (June 22) and Denver (June 26) yet to come. The nomadic songstress, who has relocated to Liberia, Switzerland, Great Britain, Barbados, and France since leaving the United States in 1969, rarely performs in her homeland. She was born in Tryon, N.C.

Backed by a quintet, Simone sat at her piano and began with a tender

version of "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair." Although her

voice has become lower and taken on a softer, more diffuse quality since her revered 1960s recordings, it can still tremble with emotion. Calls echoing "We love you, Nina" rolled wavelike through the audience.

"Thank you very much," she responded graciously, at the same time egging them on. "I guess I don't seem like an angry old woman to you."

The comment apparently was in response to a preview article in Sunday's

Boston Globe that mentioned Simone's fiery nature and her feuds

with promoters and audiences alike.

Fawning Fans

Although Simone seems to be something of a kinder, gentler Nina in her

68th year, she did test the devotion of her fans throughout the evening. The reaction to Simone's upturned palm was absolutely Pavlovian: The audience roared. The fans freely consented to play by her rules, lavishing her with praise. Rather than the deep musical journey that it could have been, the evening turned into a Simone love fest.

Although Simone's repertoire remains eclectic — jazz, blues,

gospel, pop, Broadway and folk music alternate — it's no longer

responsible for her dramatic flair, which is now more driven by

personality. A fair amount of the evening was spent revisiting the civil rights era with original songs such as "Young, Gifted and Black," also recorded by Aretha Franklin, and "Why? The King of Love Is Dead," written after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. "Seeline Woman," done as a jubilant, knee-slapping shout, would have been at home in a church, and her molten signature song, "Mississippi Goddamn," unpredictably shifted gears into Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up." Simone's album The Best of Nina Simone has a version of "Mississippi Goddamn" (RealAudio excerpt).

The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun"

and Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman"

made for lighter fare, partly because of the bland arrangements. Her

highly competent accompanying musicians — guitarist

COLOR="#003163">Al Schackman, keyboardist

COLOR="#003163">Javier Currovadas, bassist

COLOR="#003163">Tony Jones, drummer

COLOR="#003163">Paul Robinson and percussionist

COLOR="#003163">Leopoldo Fleming — were underutilized,

the better to keep attention on the star.

She also could have spent more time playing piano. Once a student at

Juilliard, she only began singing when a nightclub boss demanded it.

Simone's Day

At the concert's end, City Council member Charles C. Yancey appeared

with a proclamation declaring June 7, 2000, Nina Simone Day in Boston.

She left the stage to thunderous applause, and the audience began

waiting for an encore. Fifteen minutes passed. One by one, band members

discreetly exited the stage. It was only as the lights came up that the

still-clamoring fans realized they'd been played.

"When I first heard her, I was a student at B.U. [Boston University],"

Katherine Teitler, a professional flutist from Cambridgeport, Mass.,

said. "I wound up checking all her albums out of the library. She's

still great, so what do I care if she has a laugh or two on us?"