Finishing each song at the Warner Theatre Saturday night, Nina Simone would rise from her piano and stride toward the audience with a straight, proud back and a heavy-lidded, defiant gaze. Only when she had made it obvious that she was dead serious about the political anger and moral lessons of her songs would she flash her bright teeth in a performer's grin.
Simone provided both anger and joy in generous measure during a rare Washington performance. Accompanied by bass, drums and her own spirited piano style, she sang old songs like George Gershwin's "I Love You, Porgy," new songs like Randy Newman's "Baltimore," and distinctively personal songs like her own "Mississippi Goddam." She more than compensated for her limited range with her riveting dramatic style.Her songs often digressed into spontaneous half-sung, half-spoken monologues on feminism, black power and reincarnation. Each song, though, was held together by Simone's dominating personality and brought to its climatic end with flourish.
The show was opened by Lonnie Liston Smith & the Cosmic Echoes, who, like many fusion bands, wasted superb musicians on mediocre material, Smith -- once a bold pianist for Gato Barbieri -- writhed in his rhinestone dashiki as he led his septet through the safest of jazz-funk formulas. If country singers who betray their roots become rhinestone cowboys, jazz pianists who betray their roots must become rhinestone warriors.