Anybody walking near St. Philip and George streets between 9:10 and 10:30 on Saturday night must have stopped walking for a moment and turned their attention toward the Cistern. From the moment Dianne Reeves' band took the stage, the quartet's masterful interplay worked like a snake charmer on our ears, drawing us in and forcing our jaws to drop lower with each effortless but expertly delivered musical transition.
Upon taking his seat, pianist Peter Martin — grinning ear to ear — remarked, simply, "Local song" to those close enough to hear, just before launching into an inspired, original take on "Summertime." The quartet was clearly having fun and excited to be here. Had Reeves been delayed or forced to travel, it was immediately obvious we'd have still been treated to a Spoleto-worthy display of confident talent. But Reeves soon emerged, barefoot and wearing a modest but striking white dress, taking the microphone to reveal that the groove the band had been riffing on was another unique arrangement on a classic — Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams."
Reeves is a five-time Grammy winner, and she showed us why within moments, demonstrating an uncannily ability to transition between head and chest voice, back and forth as the moment requires.
A relaxing take on "Stormy Weather" — during which Reeves implored the audience to "sit back, relax and act like this is my backyard" — proved the closest thing to traditional jazz all evening before striking into a salsa-inspired number that morphed into a rumba rhythm, including a masterful nylon-string guitar solo and drum collaboration by Peter "Mr. Zen" Sprague and Terreon Gully. Reeves' vocalizations sometimes sounded like Spanish, other times like Portuguese, but were impossible to interpret. After a 10-minute jam, Reeves solved the mystery for us, singing (without breaking stride), "I guess you noticed this song has no words. This is dedicated to all the music around the world in languages I don't understand, that makes me feel so good."
"This is how I feel when I listen to Celia Cruz," she sang, moving her whole body in step with the beat.
Reeves and her band are among the finest musicians in the world, yet they bring such a humility and relaxed comfort to the stage that it actually feels like you're in their backyard hanging out with friends. They've got that extra little something that only the perfect combination of attitude, training ,and natural talent can create.
That feeling continued as Reeves recalled swooning over George Clooney during her work on the set of Good Night and Good Luck. The band then exited, leaving just Reeves and bassist Reginald Veal to begin a stripped down, "One for My Baby." A few minutes in, the band re-entered, morphing the song into a bluesy tribute to B.B. King, teasing "Everyday I Have the Blues." The song culminated in another solo bass moment, with Veal playing high on the neck and Reeves offering, "Reach for it. Reach for it. I can help you," before reminding us once more of her incredible vocal range with a wail that surely was heard all the way to Marion Square.
Reeves kept the party going with her take on Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain," the highlight of which is a Reggaeton breakdown punctuated by scat. She then used the groove to offer a primer in how band introductions should be done, singing her way through heartfelt praise of each member, culminating with drummer Gully, with Reeves singing, "The heartbeat of the band. The soul that takes control. I ride on the rhythm!"
It's here that the night's only low point warrants mention — and it had nothing to do with Reeves or the band. After introductions, Reeves said thank you, waved and walked off stage, while the group continued to play. Audience members — many in the first several rows — began to make their way to the aisles, only for Reeves to re-take the stage and finish the song, bringing the energy even higher. The entire band then exited the stage, but the lights stayed down. A majority of the crowd continued to applause and cheer — as is appropriate at the finale of a stunning performance — while many of the front-section folks continued to push their way to the aisles.
Reeves and her band then retook the stage for an encore, finding many of the first several rows' seats now void of audience members, and a bevy of embarrassed patrons making quick decisions to either retake the closest seat or hurry to the exit.
Unperturbed, Reeves lit into an unexpected cover of Mali Music's "Beautiful," with its "Put your lighter in the air for love" refrain. The mostly over-50 audience responded in turn, waving cellphone flashlights in the air across the entire venue.
Crisis averted, but Spoleto audiences, take it as a lesson. You're among the most polite, attentive crowds in Charleston, but perhaps you don't attend enough concerts during the rest of the year to know that when the houselights go on, that's when you walk out. Until then, stay in your seat. This is not the Gamecocks getting blown out in the fourth quarter by Georgia, and the crowd is small enough to make exiting en masse less than problematic. Be patient, and in turn, you may be rewarded.