September 1, 2011
Detroit Bar, Costa Mesa
After a lively warm-up solo by his guitarist, Bilal entered the Detroit Bar and walked up stage with his head veiled by a scarf and his eyes masked by a pair of sunglasses. He sauntered onto the stage, knocking over the mic stand, and had some difficulty replacing it on the floor. It seemed for a moment uncertain whether the singer of 2001's "Soul Sista" and one of last year's most underrated records could maintain composure on stage.
He seemed too loose and too cool, and never having seen him live, I wasn't sure if this was part of his usual act or the beginnings of a breakdown. All my concerns vanished, however, once Bilal began singing, his voice projecting as clearly and powerfully as on his records.
Last year's Airtight's Revenge is technically Bilal's second album, released 10 years after his official debut. In 2006, his sophomore record Love for Sale was never released due to an early online leak and excessive handwringing by Interscope Records, which wasn't sure how to market the new sounds on the album. Five years later, the frustrations behind the unreleased record seem to be a case example of how major labels had become obsolete. After signing to Los Angeles-based indie label Plug Research, Bilal resumed his experiments combining rock, soul and jazz music, without the risk-averse limitations of a major label.
Backed by a live band, Bilal put on an effortless performance singing sections from all three of his albums. His live version of "Sometimes," from his first record, carried the weight and uncertainty of a younger man, as he sang, "Sometimes, I wish I wasn't me / Sometimes I wish I was drug-free." Occasionally, he took off his sunglasses to emphasize a lyric or refrain, as in "All for Love," where he proclaims he's a "seeker in search of a dreamer." Although he seemed restrained on stage, taking slow sips from his glass, Bilal engaged the audience by staring soulfully into a pair of eyes or two and asking them to join in with soul claps. When pressed to perform his 2001 hit "Soul Sista," he assured the crowd that they would get their due.
In the second half, Bilal performed songs from Airtight's Revenge, including a stirring rendition of "Who Are You?", a song written in response to the uncertainty of "Sometimes." In the song, the singer displays his maturity and wisdom by resigning himself to how much he doesn't know and cannot be: "I'm a loser / I'm a winner / But I'm just a beginner." To finish the set, Bilal delivered on his promise by singing the crowd favorite "Soul Sista," a sensual slow jam with a bouncy bass line and steamy lyrics.
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Critic's Bias: Some members of the audience, myself included, wanted to hear Bilal's cover of Radiohead song "High and Dry" and first-album track "Love Poems." You can't please them all.
The Crowd: An older crowd who would've been listening to "Soul Sista" in high school or college with backseat or dorm room romance likely having ensued.
Random Notebook Dump: Two young girls sat on the front of the stage throughout Bilal's performance. In the beginning, Bilal seemed to be mad-dogging them through his sunglasses as he stared off into their direction for a full minute. He seemed at first a little bothered by this lack of etiquette but eventually let it go.