No pyro. No fog machines. No Busby Berkeley dance moves. No whip-you-with-my-hair windmills. Instead, for the first stop on her seven-date North American tour, Solange Knowles took an approach that was diametrically opposed from what her famous sister did at the Super Bowl. On Tuesday night the Independent, a no-nonsense but very-much-sold-out 500-capacity San Francisco club, she brought a four-person band, two background singers, and not a whole lot else besides a sincere heart, a sweet voice, and a stage presence both commanding and casual.
And that was all she needed: The crowd cheered the intro of nearly every song as if they ruled the radio every other hour like Destiny's Child hits did back in the day. They do not. After two modestly successful albums on two different major labels, Knowles recently released her True EP on Terrible, the tiny Brooklyn indie label co-founded by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor, and although the hype has been minimal, the buzz has been far greater — a combination that suits this 26-year-old. Wearing a tasteful Afro and a sophisticated silky green dress with asymmetrical orange patches and a slit up the inside of her left leg, this Knowles suggested a casual cool ready to rock the mic and maybe a runway.
Her music draws from '80s dance-pop, contemporary indie-rock, classic R&B, and genres far beyond without copping directly from any of them, aside from maybe the clattering programmed intro of her opening song, "Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work," which resembled the playground shuffle of Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" until her band joined in. This first song set a tone — a canny mix of danceable beats and blue sentiments — that flatteringly framed this subtle but pointed singer, and lingered throughout the show. There was no doubt that she was incredibly happy: "All I can think is that I've got the best job in the world," she beamed at her appreciative fans. But there's a sorrow to her new songs that transcends genre. Strip away the beat and synths of her single "Losing You," substitute a pedal steel guitar, and an old country gal like Loretta Lynn could turn it into a bluegrass weeper no problem.
Knowles did do a little choreography with her bassist and guitarist, an occasional rehearsed hip-shake and slide, but mostly she moved because the music moved her. This is not to say this singer lacked grace. She'd hang on her mic stand for the verses like a classic rock star, and then she'd liberate her microphone for the chorus, gesticulating in casual pro mode. "I'm so out of shape it's not cute," she said after ending "Locked in Closets" with a full-body shimmy. She's humble too; she looked great.
Every cut on her seven-track True was included in the 11-song set, but Knowles added a few surprises. "Bad Girls" from that EP segued right into Selena's posthumous 1995 hit "I Could Fall in Love" without missing a beat or changing it much; aside from doing without the original's Latin guitar and Spanish-spoken interlude, this rendition was otherwise faithful. "I'd like to introduce you to and old friend," she said before launching into a brief version of "T.O.N.Y." from her much lighter but similarly urbane 2008 album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. She also did that album's trippy-est cut, "Cosmic Journey," minus its techno coda, as well as the disc's most gleeful number, "Sandcastle Disco," which she performed as an encore to her not-quite-hour-long set. The climax was, of course, "Losing You." "Lose your phones and then fuckin' jam with us," she suggested. The audience gladly obliged. BARRY WALTERS
"Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work"
"Don't Let Me Down"
"I Could Fall in Love"
"Look Good with Trouble"
"Locked in Closets"
"Lovers in the Parking Lot"