The 9:30 Club was almost too small for Esperanza Spalding. The show she brought to the Washington venue was best suited for theater, for the bright lights of Broadway. Adorned in a shimmering smoke-gray shirt and reflective dark crown, Spalding breathed dramatic life into her exceptional new album, “Emily’s D+Evolution,” an expansive opus far removed from her previous work.
This wasn’t the Spalding we’re used to seeing. The Afro is gone, replaced with long braids. She wears glasses and colorful clothes and plays electric bass. This Spalding is edgy and fearless, basking in the glow of an almost indescribable renaissance that you can’t ignore. She was there to attack your senses and shatter preconceived notions you had about her.
Spalding’s Tuesday night gig wasn’t filled with identifiable hits. It was expansive, to be savored. Spalding teased the crowd with shy glances and smiles, interacting with just her band and back-up singers for much of the set. The music — a Prince-inspired funk-rock hybrid — took a back seat to the backstories playing out onstage: the mock marriage proposal before “Unconditional Love” and the rapid-fire spoken word preceding “Ebony and Ivy.” You could almost see Spalding’s inner child, fantasizing about these grand moments. The stage was her playroom. She floated from one side to the next, using every piece of it to narrate her own fairy tale.
Spalding sang with infectious gusto, throwing her being into these tracks to make the audience feel her emotion. In years past, her voice alone would’ve done that; here, given the album’s psychedelic approach, Spalding’s vocals hit harder, especially when coupled with guitarist Matthew Stevens’ fluid chords. A song like “One,” a “D+Evolution” standout, felt especially heavy thanks to the club’s powerful sound system. Then there was the extended guitar and bass solo near the set’s end, which unloaded waves of massive sound. Her backup vocalists danced through the crowd at one point, adding intimacy to an already spellbinding set. Later, Spalding facilitated a puppet show onstage. It didn’t really add anything to the gig, yet it worked somehow.
On “Funk the Fear,” Spalding called upon the crowd to “live your life,” to shrug off anxiety and buck the system. There, and on the hyper-theatrical “I Want It Now,” Spalding embodied that notion with supreme confidence. It was almost regal in a way; her understated poise spoke volumes. It’s the type of strength you develop over the time, the type of character that arises after personal strife, when you overcome insurmountable struggle. Spalding’s on the other side and the view is breathtaking.
Moore is a freelance writer.