JESSIE WARE DAZZLES AT NEW YORK CITY’S BOWERY BALLROOM (CONCERT REVIEW)

“I knew you Americans would get it,” British singer Jessie Ware said over uproarious cheering at the Bowery Ballroom, New York’s intimate concert venue, last Thursday.

Ware, who had just made her American television debut the previous day by performing with The Roots on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, was celebrating the release of her new EP, If You’re Never Gonna Move (available on iTunes). Comprised of select tracks from her Mercury Prize-nominated 2012 overseas premiere album, Devotion, the EP serves as Ware’s official introduction to American audiences.

The last time Ware stepped foot in the Bowery Ballroom, she told the crowd, was in December to see Solange’s headlining show. Like Solange, Ware is part of an exciting musical movement that’s ushering in the resurgence of ‘90s house by blending it with elements of Motown, disco, and traces of contemporary EDM. By doing so, artists such as these two have crafted an innovative musical style that manages to sound as fresh as it is retro.

And their industry peers are starting to really notice. Earlier this month, girl group Destiny’s Child reunited for the release of “Nuclear,” their first original song in seven years. A welcome and surprising throwback to ‘90s R&B, “Nuclear” immediately prompted comparisons to the likes of Jade and Vanessa Williams. And while the lack of Calvin Harris / David Guetta production or a Nicki Minaj guest-verse will likely prevent “Nuclear” from becoming Destiny’s Child’s next “Survivor”-level smash, the song’s release signifies something far more important – and frankly, far more interesting.

By paying homage to the era they began in, Destiny’s Child released a song that not only acknowledges that their fans have grown up too (taking notes, Madonna?), but that also catapults the distinct flavors of ‘90s R&B back into a mainstream spotlight. And lead singer Beyoncé (who had already begun to experiment with resurrecting this classic sound on her phenomenal and underrated 2011 album, 4) clearly has no plans to shift the spotlight anytime soon.

“I’ve been working with Pharrell and Timbaland and Justin Timberlake and Dream. We all started in the ’90s, when R&B was the most important genre, and we all kind of want that back: the feeling that music gave us,” the new mother said in an interview in this month’s GQ about her upcoming fifth studio album.

So what does this mean for Ware? Well, for starters, her influence is beginning to be felt on a very large scale. Plus, the increasing popularity of this nu-soul approach to R&B certainly means that Devotion’s upcoming American release (tentatively slated for April) may generate for the singer what 21 generated for fellow-Brit Adele: massive crossover appeal. And considering that tickets for Ware’s Bowery Ballroom show sold out in thirty minutes even before she officially released an album in the U.S., it’s a safe bet to say that Ware’s is a voice we’ll all be hearing a lot of this year.

Ware’s love for the music that inspired her was on full display during her entire set. In addition to singing Brownstone’s classic “If You Love Me,” Ware mashed up her own hip-hop tinged song “No To Love” with Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.” And for a brief moment during her exceptional cover of Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Wouldn’t Do For Love,” she mixed in part of Aaliyah’s “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.” Ware then casually pointed out mid-song that the day before would have been the deceased ‘90s R&B superstar’s birthday. Clearly, she has been doing her homework.

One of the first things that struck me about Ware’s performance is that not only does she sound exactly the same live as she does on her recordings, but also that sometimes she sounds even better. Filling the intimate space of the Bowery Ballroom, Ware’s melancholy and pitch perfect vocals were accompanied by a three-piece band. The second thing that struck me was that Leonardo DiCaprio would have probably been really jealous of how well Ware rocked the exposed midriff look.

Hearing Ware sing live almost suggested that her recordings are too small to fully capture her big voice. The vocal decorations that she added to songs like the lounge-y “Still Love Me,” the deliciously sexy “Night Light,” and album title track “Devotion” showed off just how insanely talented the songstress really is.

What’s more is that Ware is as humble as she is gifted. The amount of adoration pouring out from the audience was undeniable – and for Ware, it was honestly surprising. Upon receiving a bouquet of flowers from a fan near the front of the stage, she teared up and seemed genuinely taken aback. While headlining an American tour for the first time may have sounded like a potentially nerve-wracking experience, Ware couldn’t have received a warmer welcome.

The first of two back-to-back songs that evoke water imagery, Ware’s masterful delivery of the despondent and beautiful “Swan Song” seemed effortless. And before breaking into the next song, “Taking In Water,” she revealed that the ballad (which she wrote for her brother) almost didn’t make it onto the final cut of Devotion. Luckily it did, and the musician called it one of the songs she’s most proud of.

Additional highlights from Ware’s hour-long set included the simple and sizzling synthpop single, “If You’re Never Gonna Move” (recently retitled from “110%” due to legal problems obtaining the clearance of a sample used), album standout “Sweet Talk,” and the official-anthem-of-longing, “Something Inside.”

While the crowd’s applause level was never anything short of feverish, never was it higher than when Ware played “Wildest Moments.” The third single to be released from Devotion, “Wildest Moments” was written after Ware had a fight with a friend and was inspired by the duo’s shaky relationship. And despite having performed the song on Fallon the night before, Ware serenaded her audience with such conviction that it almost sounded like it was the first time she ever sang it.

Wrapping up her set with her brilliant debut single, “Running,” Ware chose to skip an encore, explaining that she “doesn’t believe” in them and that “you all have to go to sleep and go to work tomorrow, so yeah. Last song.” It was moments like these that demonstrated Ware’s honest, charming and warm disposition, making her one of the most grounded artists I’ve seen in a long time.

If all goes according to schedule and Devotion sees its American release this spring, be sure to make it a point to catch Ware’s phenomenal live show. Trust me, it may not be long before the tickets soar out of your price range.

Originally published on PopBytes

SELENA GOMEZ HEADLINES UNICEF CONCERT IN NEW YORK CITY

For many pop stars, headlining an acoustic musical fundraiser after over a year of not performing live may seem like a daunting task.

But if Selena Gomez was even the slightest bit nervous when she took to the stage at New York City’s Best Buy Theater on Saturday night for UNICEF’s third annual charity concert, she certainly didn’t let it show.

Gomez, who is only 20, has performed at all three of the organization’s annual charity concerts since she became UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2009. Benefitting programs that provide nutrition, clean water, medicine, education and more to children worldwide, the intimate event was completely sold out. And with ticket prices starting at $100, the one-night-only show raised a whopping $660,000.

“Nothing is more important than helping children in need around the globe,” Gomez stated in a press release about the event. “I’m thankful that I can use my voice to bring awareness and much-needed funds to UNICEF so they can continue their critical work. Together, with my fans, we can save lives.”

Following opening acts Nat & Alex Wolff, Noah Guthrie and Bridgit Mendler, Radio Disney personality Jake Whetter introduced Gomez to the stage. Barefoot and dressed in a simple white dress accented by the daises in her hair, Gomez looked stunning—and eager to entertain her audience.

Kicking off her set with “Round & Round,” the pop star played an array of her greatest hits, including “A Year Without Rain,” “Naturally,” and “Who Says.” Accompanied by no more than a couple acoustic guitars, a keyboard, and light percussion, Gomez went on to treat the excited crowd to stripped down versions of fan-favorite album tracks such as “Bang Bang Bang” and the Katy Perry-written “Rock God.”

While Gomez shined singing her own material, the true highlights of the evening were the various and unpredictable covers that she performed. And for a woman who recently went through a very public split with Justin Bieber, some of her song selections acted as not-so-subtly disguised jabs at her fellow superstar ex-boyfriend – including a version of “I Knew You Were Trouble” that rivaled best friend Taylor Swift’s original.

“I’ve been through a lot the last couple months. It’s been sad and cool, but interesting. This song definitely speaks to me,” Gomez confessed before diving into Justin Timberlake’s biting 2002 breakup anthem, “Cry Me A River.”

“You told me you loved me, why did you leave me alone? You tell me you need me when you call me on the phone. Boy I refuse, you must got me confused with some other girl,” Gomez sang, tweaking the lyrics to be from a female’s point of view. “Your bridges will burn and now it’s your turn to cry, cry me a river.”

Ending her interpretation of the song with a cheeky little laugh and declaration of “OK, enough of that,” Gomez’ decision to sing “Cry Me A River” was certainly a bold one—especially considering that Bieber had previously sang an acoustic version of that same exact song in concert after the pair’s breakup last fall. Rawr.

VIDEO | Courtesy of Roberto Marin

But not all of the songs that Gomez covered acted as harrowing accounts of heartbreak. Switching gears back into bubblegum mode, the singer followed “Cry Me A River” with a track made famous by that song’s muse: Britney Spears. “This is the first single of one of my favorite artists of all time,” Gomez said before breaking into her own twist on Spears’ career-launching smash, “Baby One More Time.”

Gomez (who has covered this track on tour before) introduced the seminal pop classic by talking about its inclusion in her upcoming film, Spring Breakers. An R-rated feature about four college girls who get mixed up in some “dirty work” with a skeezy drugs and arms dealer (played by James Franco) to fund their spring break, the movie looks to be Gomez’ ticket to shedding her squeaky clean image and tackling some more adult roles.

“I hope you like it,” she told me backstage after I said I was looking forward to seeing the film. “It’s very … intense,” she warned with a devilish smile.

It’s appropriate, then, that Gomez’ musical ties to Spring Breakers are in the form of Spears’ breakout hit. Like Gomez, Spears skyrocketed to fame at a young age via the Disney Channel. But with the release of “Baby One More Time,” Spears quickly morphed into a pop sensation and international sex icon. Thus, she freed herself from the confines of the “Disney star” label—a calculated image shift that Gomez hopes to emulate with the release of Spring Breakers and her upcoming new album.

Further signaling how much she’s matured, Gomez put her artistic versatility front and center during the show by taking on folk-rockers The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey.” Joined on stage for the song by openers Nate & Alex Wolff, Gomez offered a bouncy rendition of the track that got the audience on their feet just in time for her own dance-friendly single, “Hit The Lights.”

Yet easily the standout number of the night came in the form of Gomez’s cover of indie singer/songwriter Priscilla Ahn’s “Dream.” Singing with ethereal grace and tranquility, Gomez impressively demonstrated just how much her voice has developed since the release of her last album (2011’s When The Sun Goes Down). And in a move that had audience members gasping with awe, the chanteuse even pulled out a harmonica mid-song to add her own instrumental stylings to the gorgeous ballad. In that moment, it became instantly clear that Gomez has grown into a woman who’s unafraid to challenge people’s expectations of her, and into a daring musician who is excited to evolve and redefine her artistic identity.

Closing the show with her #1 dance hit, “Love You Like A Love Song,” Gomez had nearly the entire crowd (parents included) chanting the addictive chorus line, “And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat.” And even without the lavish production value of a typical pop concert, the singer’s triumphant return to the stage after spending a year away from it made it seem like she had never left in the first place.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what Selena brings in 2013. Between her edgy cinematic turn in Spring Breakers and upcoming fourth record, she has incredible opportunities ahead to add new and diverse layers to both her image and career. And if what’s coming is anywhere as pleasantly surprising as her first performance of 2013, then Selena Gomez fans can look forward to a very good year.


(Selena Gomez and I)

Originally published on PopBytes
All photos & video (except “Cry Me A River”) taken by Alex Nagorski