Better Than: Soul food with an emphasis on screaming, shaking, censor-free soul.
You knew the evening would be special as soon as the mac n’ cheese came around. Before Kelis took the tiny stage at the McKittrick Hotel — made all the tinier by her 12-piece, brass-ridden band — concert-goers were more or less asked to take a seat and dig in. Dishes started making their way through the crowd, and various small plates were put down, licked clean and whisked away only to be replenished at a moments’ notice. Duck confit on toast? Gone in a sec. Mac n’ cheese? Multiple helpings, please. Jerk ribs? Might as well serve two plates at a time.
Kelis dropped her new album Food yesterday, her first in four years, and edibles have played a huge part in her promotion of it. Her first proper show in New York behind the new stuff not only featured cuisine that suited the soulful songs of her latest effort — it was prepared, seasoned and tasted by the singer herself before she strapped on her heels and made her way to the stage. Food is about food as much as it’s about heartache, hardship, disappointment and unfettered joy, and y’know what? Kelis likes food. She’s gonna cook if she wants to, and if she whips up some perfectly gooey mac n’ cheese with a hint of truffle to go with her ambitious blend of soul, dance and tangy R&B, you better come hungry, because you’ll want — require — seconds of both. (Definitely try the jerk ribs, though. Those are apparently her favorite, and the song of the same name is the first single she chose for the album because the first single is “Where you want [the listeners] to join you.”)
“Glow,” “Floyd” and “Friday Fish Fry” were exceptional in both their emotional range and Kelis’ ability to both work with her exceptional band and know when to stand at their front and embrace the spotlight on her own. She’s aware of her shortcomings, specifically her range, and she was quick to disarm the crowd of any potential naysayers by acknowledging it right off the bat: “I’m husky, but I’m very versatile.” Rambunctious rhythms that throw back to her European dance days, tortured ballads with a jazz pulse, shade-throwing R&B that enthralls and intimidates in the same measure: she can do it all, and she can do it while cracking jokes about her boob popping out of her dress without skipping a beat. She can take a breather, too, and instead of making her way backstage (or to one of the back booths at the McKittrick, let’s be real), she sat down at one of the tables in the front and chatted up the delighted people who were seated there.
Despite the glorious Food and food, the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly “Milkshake,” that Top 40 dreamboat that elicits squeals and high-fives whenever it rolls through any given bar or dance floor. To think “Milkshake” existed before Kelis’ band could get a hold of it is a shame, as this version was exquisitely arranged, heavy on the drums, big on the cowbell and even bigger on Miss Kelis’ drama and delivery. It was all about the whole package — the look, the band, the venue, the food, the drinks, the dancing — and it proved Kelis is not only an incredible hostess, but a talent that’s criminally overlooked in the current pop landscape.
Critical Bias: The whistles and cowbell inspired a little fear at first, but Kelis’ band was a perfect foil to her balancing back between modern attitude and timeless sounds. They improvised, they relished in their extra measures, they eviscerated their solos and their respective voices — human, woodwind, brass or otherwise — lined up in perfect harmony.
Overheard: “SHUT IT DOWN!” Maybe it was the dude in the bright blue sequined suit — or maybe it was one of the other totally elated and vocal fans falling all over themselves throughout her set — but Kelis got her people yelling throughout the majority of the evening. One dude in particular wouldn’t stop screaming “SHUT! IT! DOWN!” long past the point of it seeming charming or funny, but the crowd tolerated him, as did Kelis. Why should we complain? We were basically fed a feast complete with chocolate cake bites and fall-off-the-bone ribs. Had the room not had Kelis’ cooking soaking up the free booze in their stomachs, that guy probably would’ve gotten chucked into the McKittrick’s elevator faster than he could say “Food.”
Random Notebook Dump: “Todd 4 Prez.” Kelis’ bandleader’s name is Todd, and dude rocked a whistle, a trumpet and military precision with a whole bunch of people in a rock setting like nobody’s business. That couldn’t have been easy, Todd, especially in that weird tunic-y thing straight out of Mortal Kombat you guys all had to wear, so high-fives all around.