Live: VH1 Brings Out The Divas At The Hammerstein Ballroom


VH1 Divas Celebrates Soul
Hammerstein Ballroom
Sunday, December 18

Better than: Whatever Ryan Seacrest is going to cook up for VH1 Soul.

Last night’s VH1 Divas taping existed both as a performance and self-contained, 24-hours-out advertising opportunity for its broadcast. (Tonight at 9 ET!) TV tapings are always strange to experience first-hand, given the way they’re designed for after-the-fact consumption; there are lots of long lulls in the action for the purposes of commercial breaking/set redesigning, and in “let’s all get together and put on a show” scenarios like this one there are TelePrompTers with lyrics ready to assist the under-rehearsed. Despite the breaks and assists, though, this taping didn’t have the hermetically sealed feeling of ones I attended during the pre-social-media era—people were encouraged to tweet and Foursquare check-in and let their pals on social media know what they were experiencing via corporately provided hashtag. In the 21st century, after all, all publicity is.

The night’s bent toward soul meant that most of the acts on the bill had pipes and cred—Chaka Khan, Mavis Staples, Martha Reeves, and Wanda Jackson represented for the pre-music-video era, while the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Ledisi, Jill Scott, and Jennifer Hudson were among the new-schoolers. Jessie J’s tireless, apparently unending promotional campaign also continued here; her new party trick involves her stuttering out words instead of singing them in toto, a tic that serves to both illuminate the bleatiness of her voice and make her seem even more malleable and annoying. She’s the opposite of a diva, her jet-black-dyed artifice doing a miserable job of covering up the void within; I expect either a turn to Christian rock or the “mysterious” leak of a sex tape within the next 12 months.

Sunday’s show, which will apparently be reordered in post-production, was split between multi-singer medleys honoring soul hubs of yore (Philadelphia, Memphis, Chicago, London, Detroit) and the new-school singers showcasing their most recent singles. (There was also an Amy Winehouse tribute.) The classics—which had the Roots on backing-band duty—got the singalong treatment from the audience, with Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” (on which Chaka dueted with Mary J. Blige) and Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life (However Do You Wane Me” (sung by the utterly pleasant Estelle, the haughty Marsha Ambrosius, and the eternal wild card Erykah Badu) receiving particularly lusty reactions. Badu also performed a rip-roaring, grinding version of the Roots’ “You Got Me” with Black Thought and Jill Scott that was enough to make me wish for a whole Roots show with those two contributing vocals. (The set list could be anything, really. Grindcore? Sure, why not!) During the tribute to Memphis, Mavis Staples gave up on singing “I’ll Take You There” properly to give multiple shoutouts to Badu’s “Tyrone”; Badu’s reaction, which was at once bashful and absolutely thrilled, was probably the most joyous moment of the night.

Meanwhile, on the new-school side, the American Idol runner-up-gone-legit Jennifer Hudson’s “Night Of Your Life” was an instantly hummable disco tune filtered through the Guettaized sensibilities of early-’10s pop; inaugural Idol Kelly Clarkson’s “(What Doesn’t Kill You) Stronger” received a rapturous response that made me wonder if it couldn’t be her next stealth superhit a la “Behind These Hazel Eyes”; and the always-pathos-drenched Mary J. Blige’s ode to bad boys “Mr. Wrong” was full of bite and bile, brimming with the kind of regret that stings all the more worse because of how good the initial experience felt.

And then there was Florence Welch. Welch and her band Florence + The Machine started off the night with “Shake It Out,” the bombastic first single from their new album Ceremonials. The song is all yelps and heights, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t unexpectedly, genuinely moved by its performance; Florence Welch, bathed in light, windmilled her arms grandly, and her dress’s draping made her look like she’d come down from some otherworldly plane. The tableau was transfixing enough to make me forgive her pitch problems, which were particularly notable in her lower register.

But when Welch came out to lend her pipes to two covers—Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass,” part of the tribute to London soul, and Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black,” where she was backed by the Dap-Kings—something felt very off. She seemed brittle and angular, enunciating the lyrics awkwardly while continuing her sweeping arm movements and locking her eyes in a thousand-yard stare; the gestures brought to mind three-time VH1 Divas guest Céline Dion, another singer who shares Welch’s propensity for grandiosity and Catholic background, but who brings a much more convincing brio to her words and exists on the almost exact opposite side of the “cool” spectrum from Welch. Why? Is it Welch’s Hot Topic-leaning wardrobe? Her red hair? Her being from the UK and not Quebec? (Let’s not even get into the fact that Dion has a much better voice. Although that could be part of the problem!)

Luckily Welch’s inert “Black” didn’t close out the night; instead, the spitfire Sharon Jones returned to blast through “He Said I Can,” a bonus cut from her and the Dap-Kings’ 2010 album I Learned The Hard Way recently issued on 45. It was boisterous and fun, and Jones had the crowd in her hand; she could have probably reeled off an entire set that would have kept the assembled from running en masse for the downstairs coat check. Split the MVP award between Jones, who also owned “You Know I’m No Good” while helping Wanda Jackson with the lyrics during the Winehouse tribute, and Ledisi, who apparently filled in at the last minute for the M.I.A. Anita Baker on the wrenching coda to Baker’s still-arresting “Sweet Love.” As she walked offstage after murdering the track, ?uestlove led the band in applause—she’d come through in a pinch in a big way, and it was enough to hope that a star-is-born story was beginning right there.

Critical bias: No but really Jessie J is the worst.

Overheard: “Bring her back!”—Audience member behind me after Ledisi ripped through “Sweet Love.”

Random notebook dump: Lots of dudes in the get-the-crowd-pumped music—the Throne, LMFAO, Common. But none of them popped as much as Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” which had the whole crowd singing along from note one. (Hey, it’s not like there are a lot of lyrics to remember.)