For the Jessie Ware show, which took place April 7, Zellerbach Theater had a bit of an identity crisis. It served as a site for an electro-pop concert, but it insisted on preserving its classiness with ushers and gilded chandeliers. That’s not to say that Ware didn’t perform excellently — her performance surpassed her recordings in both strength and tone.
The opener, Jesse Boykins III, was a casual yet stellar warmup — one can see him carrying his own solo tour with ease. His voice nails some of the sweet spots of traditional R&B. Nectary sliding scales and hums paired with syncopated rhythms made it easy for newcomers to follow and dance to his music. The synths and neo R&B that many attribute to Frank Ocean and the Weeknd populate Boykins’ newer solo songs from his album that came out last year, produced by MachineDrum. But Boykins’ songs and personality was warmer than the Weeknd’s. Accompanied by just a laptop onstage, Boykins himself would press play for the next song and have the audience pooling at his feet to dance.
But between sets, people were ushered out of the aisles and back to their assigned seats. The pit that had formed at the front for Boykins dispersed, and people waited as if the concert were a theater production. It took Ware only a few songs, after opening with the first song of her first album, “Running,” to note the peculiarity of the seating arrangement, saying, “I’ve never done a seated show before.” Whether this comment was meant to goad people into dancing more or was just a simple observation, the crowd was assuredly there for a week-night concert, remaining mostly still save for a subtle neck bob.
Perhaps this was related to the lack of students attending the show. When Ware asked who in the audience were students, the subsequent responses made it clear that most of the attendees came from San Francisco. It’s puzzling that a campus venue had such little student attendance even though Ware has worked with artists and groups such as Disclosure, A$AP Rocky and SBTRKT.
Ware and her band brought an extra punch that kept the crowd alive despite the its respectful (read: boring) tendencies. Ware’s album tracks seem more pleasant than jam-worthy — her voice in the recordings steer the tracks, and rightly so. But the songs played live were exponentially more complete and bombastic. Ware claimed that sickness weakened her voice, but she filled the auditorium’s two tiers with the richness of her voice, which was especially resonant in “Kinda… Sometimes… Maybe.” The set list was split with about one-third of the songs from Devotion (2012) and two-thirds from her latest, Tough Love (2014), which was also the title of her tour. She slowed down the tempo about an hour into her set to sing a cover of Nina Simone’s “That’s All I Want from You.”
One of the last shows Ware played in the Bay Area was at her early afternoon set at Outside Lands in 2013. Her outfit onstage resembled a mixture between a lab coat and a kimono — this image seems apt for the categorization of Ware’s aesthetic and sound. Her use of electronic and industrial-inspired beats and her penchant for white strobe lights make her seem like a hyper-modern artist. But the romantic escapism of her lyrics and ability to cantillate and croon push her back into the traditional singer-songwriter category. Of course, she is neither one nor the other, but a hybrid of talents. Both her ingenuity and genuineness make her an act to keep following.
Contact Art Siriwatt at [email protected].