Janelle Monae was announced as a last minute replacement for Aretha Franklin to perform last night at the Chicago Symphony’s Corporate Night. Sitting in the audience, you’d never guess she wasn’t the first choice. The orchestra had every song down perfect, the light show was brilliantly done, and the night went off without a hitch. This was probably aided by the fact that Monae and her band just played with the San Francisco Orchestra last week.
The set was a mixture of originals and covers featuring Prince and The Jackson 5. This was a fundraiser for music education, so the evening began with a short video about the CSO’s efforts in the community. Conductor Sean O’Laughlin came out next and led the orchestra through a nice overture before Monae’s band came out, followed shortly by the star of the show in her usual tuxedo and bow tie.
The music bounced back and forth between uptempo numbers and ballads. The orchestra’s string section added an extra layer of heartache to the slow songs, while the horns gave the dance numbers some extra juice. The best combination of Monae’s band and the orchestra came on “Take Me With U” by Prince. This arrangement adds about 60 more players than the Purple Rain version, and it was an epic sonic experience. As an example, here’s what it sounds like with just the band:
It seemed like most of the audience was familiar with Janelle Monae’s music at least a little. Those that didn’t were surely won over by her performance. She was shimmyin’ and shakin’ in ways I’m sure that stage has never seen. When she wasn’t impressing with her dance moves she was singing her heart out. I was especially pleased with the live take of “Peachtree Blues” toward the middle of the set. It’s a very under appreciated gem in her catalogue and she struck just the right balance of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.
I was also quite impressed with the James Bond piece that kind of acted as a break between two halves of the set. Monae left the stage and the orchestra went into a sublime rendition of the Bond Theme. In the movies it’s only a couple minutes long, but they played a good five minutes, featuring each section of the orchestra throughout. At the end Monae returned and they launched into a version of “Goldfinger” that would absolutely make Shirley Bassey proud.
The main set ended with a 1-2 punch of “Cold War” and “Tightrope” that got everyone on the floor level to their feet. After respectfully allowing the orchestra to shine, Monae’s band took over and just exploded with energy. Kellindo Parker was wailing earlier on in the show, but seemed to really get into the groove with these two. And the horn duo of Lance Theory on trumpet and trombone player Marcus Lewis lived up to their hype as “the funkiest horn section in Metropolis.”
After a short break that remained abuzz with thunderous applause, the band returned for two more songs. “BaBopByeYa” is a long, soulful number full of jazzy Latin beats. It’s a great tune to feature an orchestra on because there’s so much happening at all times. Even the album version on Arch Android is super complex, so it was nice to have all the pieces to really fill it up.
The final song was “Q.U.E.E.N.,” Janelle’s new single with Erykah Badu. It’s easily the hottest song of the year so far, and this performance didn’t disappoint. The bass line on the track is killer, and Brandon Gilliard nailed it last night. Monae was really working the stage-so much so that she had to leave it and go out into the crowd. She made her way around the floor level while continuing to sing the whole time. Old and young alike were on their feet and dancing in the aisles.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this show, and I was blown away by how good it was. The orchestra was amazing, of course. Monae’s band was astounding. And Janelle is one of the best performers I’ve seen live. She makes you feel every note on the ballads and gets your heart racing on the dance tracks. Sure the tickets were a bit pricey, but it was totally worth every penny.
I Want You Back
Dorothy Dandridge Eyes
Take Me With You
James Bond Theme