Review: Sing the Truth – Nina Simone Remembered

The selection of songs in the show Sing the Truth leans heavily in favor of those on Nina’s recordings for the Philips record label from 1964 to 1966 … They are as essential as any other body of music, featuring a breathtaking mastery of styles and delivery. I must tell you that the experience of exploring the Nina Simone catalogue has been alternately harrowing, joyous, painful, exultant, infuriating, enlightening, indescribably sad, sexy, remorseful, prophetic, cleansing, devastating, hilarious, educational, furious, inspiring, delightful, viciously angry, uplifting, emotionally overwhelming, and ultimately, a spiritual journey which has been transformative. I’ve got to believe that for most of her fans these are familiar sentiments. She is like no other artist. (Danny Kapilian, Producer, Sing the Truth)

Sing the Truth – Nina Simone Remembered at the Barbican Centre last Thursday was an astonishingly beautiful tribute of which I can well imagine the unpredictable and impossibly demanding chanteuse would have been deeply proud. I once read an interview where Nina Simone was asked how she felt about getting a mention in a Lauryn Hill song and replied that, while very flattered, she would have much preferred that Lauryn simply sing one of her tunes. On this evening four artists took turns singing Nina Simone’s songs and, in the true spirit of Nina, transformed each into a creation all their own.

The line-up featured vocalists Lizz Wright, Lisa Simone Kelly, Angelique Kidjo and Dianne Reeves, guitarist Al Schackman, bassist Chris White, percussionist Leopoldo Fleming, drummer Paul Robinson and Jeremy Berlin on piano. The show opened with Lizz Wright singing  ‘I Loves You Porgy’ — a song that was, in the words of someone old enough to remember when it first came out, ‘great to make love by’. Wright’s gentle voice transformed it into a lullaby, fresh and soothing, and her quiet elegance as she bowed and exited the stage, in a flowing evening gown and bare feet, reminded me of Nina Simone’s insistence on grace and professionalism in performance — regardless of whether the audience was a pile of drunks in an Atlantic City bar or the crème de la crème of uptown Manhattan. Next came Lisa Simone Kelly, known by the stage name ‘Simone’, who let loose her Broadway vocal range on a driving and forceful version of ‘Work Song’ and who paused to remind a very appreciative audience of the importance of remembering and honoring genius. Angelique Kidjo brought new meaning to ‘See-Line Woman’ and graciously paid tribute to the importance of Nina Simone to young African women who must confront the double bind of racism and sexism, and followed her moving words with a still more moving rendition of ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’. Dianne Reeves then rounded out each set with a voice conjured from deep within the center of the earth, transforming ‘Be My Husband’ into an incantation and belting out a version of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ that sent the audience — or was it just me? — into near-hysterics. The show could not have been any more appropriately concluded than with a version of ‘Four Women’ sung by all four vocalists, each carrying a single verse.

Sing the Truth is a tribute in the truest sense. Spanning three generations of musicians — the oldest in their seventies, the youngest in their twenties — the show bears witness to just how profoundly Nina Simone’s music has informed her listening audience, and just how wide a spectrum of listeners she was able to reach. Not to be missed.