The unsinkable Solange Knowles played the headlining slot for Soul’d Out Music Fest, a soul and R&B music festival based in multiple venues around Portland, on Friday, April 21, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The festival’s events from April 19–23 have included Travis Scott (who brought Drake out to get cozy in the crowd); Giorgio Moroder, The Ohio Players and Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles.
It’s hard to outshine the posh, well-dressed crowd at the Schnitzer, many of whom looked like they just stepped out of a J. Crew catalog photo shoot, but the high bar for the dress code was raised even higher as Solange and her eight-piece backing ensemble strolled onto stage in matching red jumpsuits; some were in white sneakers, others wore red flats. Everyone on stage was bleached under a rich, blood-red light for the hour-long show.
Solange’s set, which featured much of her album “A Seat at the Table” (read the Emerald’s review here), opened with the first three sequential tracks from the 2016 record: “Rise,” “Weary” and “Cranes In The Sky.”
The former two songs made Solange’s gravitational stage presence patently clear. She has a magnetic charisma that speaks volumes, even when she is dead silent.
In the opening of “Weary,” the shuffling, subdued bass line paused for a moment. The entire concert hall fell quiet for a brief lull, hanging in suspense before Solange murmured the opening lines: “I’m weary of the ways of the world.” It is impossible to take your eyes away from her.
During “Cranes,” her voice soared past the venue’s rafters to stratospheric heights. Her immaculate soprano voice is matched by the red-clad group’s perfect musical arrangement, which burst with triumphant trombones, stirring piano melodies, a pattering drum section and her angelic back-up singers.
She hopped offstage and romped around the crowd during “F.U.B.U.,” a powerful anthem about appropriation of black culture. In the track, she extends a sentiment of self-pride to her son: “I hope my son will bang this song so loud / that he almost makes his walls fall down / ‘cause his mama wants to make him proud / to be us.”
One of the most admirable elements of Solange’s live show is the impeccable choreography. It’s so precisely designed that every subtle movement, every head nod and jazz hand-wave, was on cue. At times the group would form a tight chorus line and sway back and forth in unison, with everyone (save the trombonists) continuing to play.
When she demanded that everyone dance during the bubblegum-pop hit “Losing You” from her 2012 EP “True,” the entire hall erupted at her behest. The encore performance “Don’t Touch My Hair” — Solange’s exhortation of the casual fetishization of black women — was phenomenal. She turned her back to the audience and acted as conductor, commanding the musicians with loud, grandiose gestures. As the drummer smashed the cymbals, she mirrored him, thrashed her limbs and windmilled her arms.
Following the show, even one of the Arlene’s security guards — who just spent the last hour dancing — was quietly weeping and speechlessly shaking her head in awe. Solange isn’t just a firebrand individual, and her show isn’t just an opulent, elegant triumph of performance art. She is a puppet master; we’re marionettes.