There is nothing — nothing — better than an August night in Nashville. No better time to be alive and out on the town than between the hours of 8 p.m. and dawn in the month leading up to Labor Day. Maybe it's the sweltering heat that occupies our daylight hours, or the fact that by 8 o'clock we're in a position to kick back and relax the way we did during the summers of our youth, but there's a magic glow that comes over the city as the summer winds down. There's a not-quite-oppressive humidity that draws out the sweat without soaking you straight through, that loosens up the brainwaves and facilitates the sway of our hips and the grooves that we've been keeping on the back burner as we bust our asses to get through the workday. There's an immediacy in those August nights, a feeling that we better enjoy this now or we'll be kicking ourselves when the mercury drops and it's time to bust out the heavy coats. Basically, it's the perfect time of the year for some seriously sultry R&B.
And when we say "R&B," we're not talking about cookie-cutter, computer-generated pop-rap about consumer goods and childish concerns. No, we're talking legit rhythm and actual blues. We're talking about a range of emotions that extends beyond the shopping-and-partying clichés that have overrun urban radio. We're talking about honest-to-God soul as expressed through honest-to-God voices that come out of an honest-to-God human, rather than a bunch of filters patched together in hopes of glossing over the fact that the vocalist has more visual than sonic appeal. We're talking about deep, deep grooves that dredge the depths of human experience to stir the sort of emotions that you just can't get from another Auto-Tuned club-banger. And to be more specific, we're talking about the soul chanteuse Ledisi — if anybody is more perfect for an August night in Nashville, we haven't found her.
The appeal of Ledisi lies in the fact that while she may have a sound that connects with the long and storied history of R&B — you can hear everyone from Roberta Flack to Rufus in her taut tunes — that history is not the sole provenance of her sound. When you put on a Ledisi album, whether it's last year's Grammy-nominated Pieces of Me, her breakout Lost & Found (also Grammy-nominated) or the seasonally inappropriate but worth-a-spin It's Christmas, there's a sense of familiarity, a feeling that you've already lived with this record for a long, long time. But it's not the "been there, done that" sense that you might get from, say, a second-string soul-revival act, or another rap 'n' bullshit (as De La Soul might call it) retread. The familiarity comes from the fact that there are actual humans on the other side of the microphone, and they're making music that is both contemporary and classically inspired.
The first time we ever heard the titular track from Pieces of Me on our local radio station — a station whose playlists we've more or less memorized — our initial thought was, "We know this song. No wait, we don't! How have we not heard this song?!" The piano-driven, gut-wrenching ode to the complexity of an individual negotiating a public persona struck us as something we would have dug out of our parents' record collection, but we knew that it was new. If it wasn't new, we'd have heard it before — it is very rare that commercial radio drops a classic that's outside of our purview — but this sounded like a record we had loved since time immemorial. And still, over a year after its release and a year in heavy rotation, every time Ledisi's "Pieces of Me" comes over the airwaves or through the speakers of our home stereo, it sends the same shivers up our spine.
While we may be generally averse to slapping the "timeless" tag on a contemporary artist — it tends to denote a safeness and a staidness that discounts an artist's immediacy and relevance — we're more than happy to hand it over to Ledisi. Her music floats outside the tired new-trope-a-minute arms race that has taken over the popular end of the genre — a genre that has essentially traded in all the blues for boring Euro-dance rhythms — and has more presence than bands and artists devoted to meticulous reproductions of bygone eras. Ledisi, in short, makes music outside of time and space — unless of course the time is an August night in Nashville. Tonight at Marathon Music Works, fellow R&B heavyweight Eric Benét will also perform.