The sound was incredibly low at the beginning of Alice Smith’s performance at the Howard Theatre on Friday. The beat was lively, and Smith seemed unfazed by the poor resonance, but it was tough to hear her voice above the melodic fray.
Suddenly, there was a loud pop of guitars, drums and bass. Then came Smith, whose gutsy soprano whirls fiercely around your ears and burrows straight into your heart. When the sound kicked in, she leaned back, let out a quick “Hey!” and proceeded to wow the D.C. audience with an edgy opening number.
Smith brims with such strong conviction that you truly feel what she sings; in turn, you experience the same raw emotions she conveys through her eclectic blend of rock, blues and R&B. In 2006, Smith scored a hit with “Dream,” a warm, head-in-the-clouds number that opened her debut album, “For Lovers, Dreamers & Me.” The song, which was nominated for a Grammy in the now-
defunct best urban/alternative performance category, would be Smith’s calling card until recently. In March 2013, the singer released her long-awaited sophomore album, “She,” seven years after her initial recording.
Still, you can’t truly appreciate Smith until you’ve seen her perform. Her set, spanning a little more than an hour, offered a cozy sampling of familiar and unfamiliar tunes that seemed to stick with the patrons. And Smith, who was raised in the District and Augusta, Ga., remained affable the entire way, that dulcet roar bouncing throughout the historic venue. After a stirring rendition of “Fool for You,” much of the crowd stood to applaud her range, a pitch-
perfect octave she hums without the theatrics used by other R&B singers. When Smith hits that note, she balls up her fists and tightens her shoulders as if she’s forcing the music into your soul. As on “She,” the thrilling conclusion to Friday night’s show, the vocalist used a triumphant rock procession to orate a glorious tale of redemption. “Can’t you hear me, I’m she!” goes the song’s chorus. Smith delivered the line so intensely that it was felt long after the show concluded.
Yet Smith was just as effective when she softened her tone. On “Be Easy,” the singer descended into the rhythm and cooed gently about patient sensuality. With “Ocean,” Smith rode a light guitar riff to offer some real talk. “What can I do to make you understand,” she purred into the microphone, “you seem to me to be a hell of a man.” Midway through the gig, Smith belted out something that wasn’t even a formal song. Instead, it felt like an improvised harmony just to showcase that gorgeous voice again. The listeners, as they did all night, ate it up. “Thank you,” Smith said with a smile. “That was for you guys.”
Moore is a freelance writer.