By David Walters
This is the second year that Natalie Douglas has spent Juneteenth (one of her favorite holidays, for obvious reasons, as she says) at her Birdland home where she has been performing for 20+ years. The thirteen-time MAC award winner is a powerful singer with as much power coming from within as without. Her spirit matches her voice exposing an infectious stage charm that bubbles over onto the audience and coats us with warmth as she brings her love of life with her to the stage and thickly spreads it all around.
As she said, there were a million songs that could have been in this show. The set of 13 songs that she settled on dealt with freedom (defined as being the absence of fear) in one form or another. Each one is strong on its own, but together they provided a powerhouse of an evening. I honestly have to say that I will walk a little differently on this planet after experiencing this show. The heart behind the selection of her song list for the evening struck as strong a note as her singing, so I’m going to share that with you:
Natalie started us off with the appeal “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” and set the simultaneous, both somber and joyous, tone for the evening.
Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” came deep from the heart, springing from one of its possible creation origins (Black woman living in a southern state). I will never listen to the song the same way again.
“Farther Along” was a soulful hymn where Natalie was vocally accompanied by her band that blended harmonies and brought a churchlike serenity.
“Reverend Lee” was a strident ballad that dragged us to hell and back.
“Union Label/If I Had A Hammer” The old TV commercial song was partnered with the Pete Seeger standard where everyone joined in singing along and gave me goosebumps in how the crowd was brought together with this song in a shared experience, each bringing their own personal connection.
“Down At Stonewall,” Natalie warned us that the haunting refrain may never leave our heads, and she was right.
“Four Women” was a jazz journey of truth thanks to Nina Simone.
“Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)” The story behind this song is of this country breaking the heart of Nina Simone one too many times causing her to settle elsewhere for the rest of her life.
“The Death Of Emmett Till” was a Bob Dylan ballad that took us on a journey where we didn’t want to go.
“Mississippi Goddam,” the infamous showtune where the show hasn’t been written for it yet.
“Black Like Me” is a song more than half a century removed from “Mississippi Goddam” but still saying the same thing.
The Tina Turner hit “River Deep, Mountain High” was driving in its delivery.
“This Little Light/Now!” This may seem a bit superfluous, but if angels in heaven sing like this, I want to go. The linking of “This Little Light” and Lena Horn’s “Now!” (written for her by Jule Styne in order to top Sinatra) left us all with a heavy heart, but joyful in hope and community.
Her band not only brought their musical talents to the stage in support, but they also brought themselves which was evident in the joy of playing together for Natalie and with each other. Music Director Mark Hartman on piano, Jakubu Griffin on drums, Jonathan Michel on bass, and Brian Nash on keys.
This was a concert that I wish everyone I have ever known would have been able to attend as I found the song choice and the delivery to be sublime, part of the soul of the people of this country.
Mark your calendar for next Juneteenth at Birdland.
As always, this is just one person’s opinion in a world filled with them.