Esperanza Spalding casts her spells on the Cistern audience 

Chasing Moments of Magic

click to enlarge Esperanza Spalding casts her spells on the Cistern audience to varied effect

Spoleto Festival USA

Esperanza Spalding casts her spells on the Cistern audience to varied effect

"I like this weather — it's good for singing," Esperanza Spalding exclaimed to the audience, muggy in our chairs as the temperature still hovered near 80 degrees at 9 pm. But heat is good for magic, and Spalding came to conjure. Dressed in a white jumpsuit with "Life Force" in black block letters across her chest and a heart patch on her sleeve, the organ, not the shape, Spalding dove into her upright bass, calling it her magic wand.

For almost half an hour, she remained alone on stage, exposed with only her voice and the bass to build phrases that followed her hand through the air as she used physical motion and moments of silence to imply melody. Spalding is so much more than a singer or a musician — she's a performance artist, demonstrating what's possible when a person harnesses talent and training without hesitation and is able to take the reins off but still maintain control in front of an audience. She sang in Spanish, and she sang Joni Mitchell's "The Wolf that Lives in Lindsey," working her voice across octaves, always earthy, sometimes biting, and never shrill. 
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Spalding acknowledged that the opening solo segment was "self indulgence," but we didn't mind.

The show was young and applause was hearty. She was giving everything, singing physically and freely, despite the exposure of an extended vocal performance with only bass as accompaniment. When she reached her first "spell" from 2018's 12 Little Spells, she even acknowledged what some may have been feeling, muttering (jokingly) "can't wait for the band to come on" as she pretend posted to Instagram with hashtag "#totallyinthepresent" and the admonishment, "Have you prayed to your phone today?"

That's all part of the song, "Dancing the Animal (mind)," but it did speak to one thing Spoleto audiences do well — phones are generally kept pocketed. Her point was made though, and soon after promising "we're pumping magic into the air," her three-piece band took the stage in matching jumpsuits.

Spalding walked off and quickly returned in a Hindi orange dress, flowing but cut high. Next was the title track, focused on the thoracic spine. Multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin built an enveloping sound space that led to an explosive ending and brief, intentional silence before an audience member seated up front but on the extreme far side shouted out about being unable to hear the vocals. The mix was clean in the center of the Cistern, but Spalding acknowledged her, joked that she'd missed some good "stuff," and her microphone was noticeably raised in the mix by the sound engineers.

It was a small interruption, and Spalding recovered with "'Til the Next Full (eyes)," bringing drummer Marcus Gilmore to a thunderous conclusion. Next came the show's highlight, "Thang (hips)," with Spalding explaining that the "stride grease" chorus should be sung together to loosen up our hips. Crowd participation was weak, and our leader casually remarked, "It's for you, not me."

Unfortunately, that proved to be the show's peak moment of audience response and interaction. "Touch in Mine (fingers)" found Spalding standing still but enveloped in physical body art as she sang, letting her hands join her voice in performing the song. She continued for another 30 minutes through her solar portal, arms and legs spells, before "With Others (ears)," where she asks, "Where do I fit in your power trip?" Guerin emulated her vocal lines on sax, and Spalding finally picked up her electric bass and sang that "we all need love."

But when she opened her eyes, she didn't feel loved. Elderly couples all over the audience were rising and heading to the exits. It was 10:15 p.m. and they'd gotten their promised 75-minute's worth. Spalding stared out at one group slowly shuffling to the aisle, about 10 rows back from the stage. Her jaw seemed to drop a bit. She held her bass, presumably preparing to play "You Have to Dance (feet)," the obvious closer and as the name would imply, the most grooving, danceable spell among her collection. But instead, she took a breath, looked around, and said, "I think we're done." The stage lights stayed down, but instead of clapping and cheering for an encore, most people stood up to walk out.

Maybe I missed something. Maybe most folks didn't realize that they likely missed a show highlight by not offering any energy in return. But Spalding took the stage and opened the night with a conversation. Some of her first words were that she didn't want to barrel onto the stage and just start playing. "I want to get to know you," she offered with apparent genuine sentiment. She's an artist who appreciates the mutual exchange of energy that occurs in any interaction between people. On Spoleto's opening night at the Cistern, she came out giving and giving and giving. But as the night went on, the audience took without replenishing her.

Magicians perfect their craft when they're alone, but the work is all for the sake of the eventual performance. Spells, however perfectly designed and impressive, just aren't as fun to cast if you don't get a wide-eyed reaction.

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