For two years, scarcely a note has been heard from poet turned neo-soul singer Jill Scott, and unless you live in her Philadelphia neighborhood, odds are you haven't seen her either. What's she been up to?
"I've been painting . . . rooms in my house," she quipped Saturday night during the second of two sold-out shows at the 9:30 club. She also got married, wrote songs, slept late and ignored all pressure to rush and record a follow-up to "Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1," a debut that sold more than 1 million copies. And there was a lot of pressure and no shortage of chatter about the delay.
"People say, 'She did good on the first album, but she takin' too long with the second,' " Scott said, imitating her naysayers. " 'She crazy.' "
Well, if this woman is crazy, we should all be so nuts. Now 33, Scott has a slow-motion radiance about her that can't be faked and an unflappable calm onstage that manages, paradoxically, to send everyone around her into a lather. Serenity is her secret weapon, and she uses it the way heavy-metal bands use flash bombs and drum solos.
This was a concert first, a tribute to the joys of monogamy second, and a self-confidence class/community outreach program third. The glories of lust at its purest were hallelujahed on the R-rated "Whatever, Whenever," during which Scott described everything she'd be willing to do for her husband -- wear his favorite nurse's outfit, or "wear those shoes that never hit the floor" -- if he just keeps delivering between the sheets.
But much of Scott's new material has an unflinching, socially conscious edge to it, and she segued immediately to a serious and poignant appeal to black men on a new track called "The Fact Is." The message: Black women can do a lot, but not everything, and they need mates to complete their lives and to help raise their children. It was a torch song, but one targeting a few million guys, rather than one lover in particular.
"Yes, we are powerful, but there are a lot of single mothers out there," she later told the crowd, which was almost entirely African American and listened with reverence. "We need you, we need you daddies, you uncles, big cousins. . . . We're grown-ups. Let's act that way."
It got even heavier when Scott sang an anti-Bush number called "My Petition," which neatly outlined her grievances in a way that, unfortunately, overpowered the song. Laying it on thick from the opening notes, "My Petition" started with a bass solo that plucked out the melody to "America the Beautiful," and it included lines like "How can I trust you when you lie to me repeatedly?"
"A little too heavy?" she asked when "My Petition" was wanly applauded.
Yes, but Scott didn't let the momentum stall for too long. She and her band, anchored by a charismatic 20-year-old drummer named Booty Green, breezed into rock, jazz and Latin music with a disco beat. She sashayed a little now and then and took a quick occasional break to dab her brow. But most of the time she just stood with her arms at her sides, her hands relaxed. She's that rare singer who emotes through her voice without having to sell it with her rest of her body.
And yet, there aren't many singers as in love with their bodies, or at least none that are as vocal about it.
"Thank you for this," she sang, as she wrapped both hands around her ample bosom and thanked God, during the talking interlude to one song. "Thank you for this," she added, grabbing part of her rear end. This was the love-thyself segment of the show, and Scott soon had the entire audience chanting "I do love me," over and over, until it sounded like everyone actually believed it.
Scott has the skills to take an audience just about anywhere she wants, in part because her fans know that she has their best interests at heart, in part because she seems like the sort of nurturing, engaged and deeply intelligent friend anyone would covet. You feel you know her by the end of the show, and everything you know about her seems either adorable or admirable or a little of both. There aren't a lot of performers who get more mileage out of smiling at a crowd than she does. Some of the loudest applause of the night came when she just stood there and beamed.
She closed with a little fake-out.
"You don't know this one," she told the crowd as a keyboard solo introduced the last number of the night. She was lying. The song was "He Loves Me," from her debut. And when the crowd realized it had been briefly snookered, a scream went up in the 9:30 club. It sounded like everyone in the room had hit the lottery at the same time.