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The Queen Of Nice

November 26, 2007

Latifah means "nice" in Arabic. It suits the singer/actor Queen Latifah (nee Dana Owens) perfectly.

At Davies Symphony Hall last night on tour to support her new Trav'lin' Light album, Queen L made her audience feel like we were all part of her family. Sauntering about the stage in comfy black slacks and a black shirt with a white mug in her hands, the artist looked like she was hanging out with a bunch of friends in her living room. I half-expected her to kick off her shoes and settle down in front of the telly. She called the evening "intimate" and at one point threw her arms open and called for an auditorium-wide "group hug." She had her dad come on stage in the middle of her set (a sweet-looking and impeccably outfitted guy with a shiny diamond stud in one ear who lurked in the wings throughout the concert) and dedicated a song to her mother.

It wasn't just the performer's demeanor that created a homey atmosphere. It was the way she approached her material, which consisted mostly of blues and jazz standards with the odd bit of samba and folk pop thrown in for variety. Latifah has a way of reaching out to an audience while she's singing. She caresses the words in downbeat numbers like "Poetry Man" like she's embracing someone. She belts out the lyrics from "California Dreamin'" like she's longing to stay in the Bay Area.

What I loved the most was the way Latifah shared the stage. In the sense of her stature and power, Latifah qualifies as a diva. But she's the very opposite when it comes to allowing the other members of her 12-person band to shine. During a very long musical ode to love (or, rather, "luuurve" in Latifah-speak), the star had each of her three backing singers come out individually to improvise a 5-minute solo. I've never seen a front woman or man be this generous, this happy to duck temporarily out of the limelight, before. The backing singers got a chance to show us what they could do. Each had a very different quality to their voices and I was grateful to get to hear them one by one. It would have been a pity to keep them in the back singing only "ahhh" and "do do do" for the entire show. Romeo Johnson has one of those voices that can't stay still. He skittered around his substantial vocal range like a ball ricocheting around a pinball machine. Sharlotte Gibson had a careening soul voice, kind of like Latifah's but warmer. When Nayanna Holley came centerstage, Latifah had her players pick up the pace and we were treated to some impressive jazz-style scat-singing.

One final thing that stood out for me about the concert: I have never seen such a diverse crowd at Symphony Hall. And I rarely experience such diversity at any arts event. There were wizened old white geezers shuffling along behind zimmer frames. Hot young black hop-hop chicks in tight outfits. Gay and lesbian couples smooching in the orchestra seats. Latinos. Asians. little kids holding their mothers' hands. Twenty-something dudes in low-slung jeans. White girls in black cocktail dresses and high heels. What looked like a bus-load of middle-aged people of all different races clutching green Christmas tree ornaments. And everything in between.

Latifah appeals to all, it seems. She's nice alright. She's also a great artist.

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