Ladies’ night

A trio of soulful female singer-songwriters brightens up Lost on Main

Photo by Carey Wilson

Lilla, Lisa Valentine and Jesi Naomi, Friday, April 24, Lost on Main.

In general, I’m not hugely enthused about genre-themed shows. I’d rather see a mixed bag of country, metal, soul and punk than a night filled with any one of them exclusively. But I’m willing to make exceptions, especially when faced with a lineup such as that which graced the stage at Lost on Main last Friday (April 24): three bands fronted by excellent female singer/songwriters. Each worked within the very broad category of “soul” music, but each used different instrumental configurations along with their powerful and unique voices to express personal lyrical perspectives.

First on stage was local favorite Lisa Valentine, who started her set with “Mrs. Parker,” a tribute to the famously acid-tongued wit of humanitarian and humorist/writer Dorothy Parker. Like the subject of that song, Valentine is a specialist at writing lines that pack an emotional punch along with just enough of a sly cushion to help you land with a smile (e.g., “I’m just a bad girl who looks good” from “Don’t Trust Me”).

Backed by local jazz guitarist Dave Elke, upright bassist Ben Jaks, drummer Jake Sprecher, and violinist Joel Quivey, Valentine’s compositions were touched with flavors of gypsy jazz, classic Memphis R&B, and even a hint of psychedelia via Elke’s soloing on a song titled “San Francisco” that lyrically offered glimpses of both the neon-lit glamour and the inescapable grittiness of street life in The City. Closing her set was “Smoke Filled Room,” a slow-burning depiction of flamed-out love made darkly melancholy by entwining melodies from Jaks’ bowed bass and Quibey’s viola, and complemented by Valentine’s down-stroked ukulele and Sprecher’s dynamically syncopated drum beat.

Undaunted by following such a phenomenal opener, Jesi Naomi and her band took the stage with well-deserved confidence and enthusiasm. Composed of Isaac Uhunmwuangho (guitar), Burt Levy (percussion), Ben Sallmann (tuba) and her brother Bradley Relf (drums)—with Naomi switching off between guitar and keyboard—the band offered New Orleans second-line-style exuberance in backing her joyful singing. At times, Naomi’s vocals reminded me of the electrifyingly sultry delivery of Lydia Pense of San Francisco’s soul powerhouse Cold Blood, and her band was up to the task of telepathically tracking her vocals with dynamic shifts of intensity. Guitarist Uhunmwuangho’s fretwork shifted from intimate cricket chirps to jarring immensity during the hugely melodic “To the Moon,” a song that Neil Diamond or Elton John or Aretha Franklin could seamlessly add to their repertoires.

Having been warmed up by two well-received and beautifully delivered sets by local artists, the late-night audience enthusiastically welcomed headliner Lilla (stage name of Lilla D’Mone) to the stage. Backed by her studio-quality band—guitarist Joe Hall, bassist Nathaniel Daniel, drummer Tyrone Hendrix and keyboardist/vocalist Matthew Flowers—Lilla delivered a festival-friendly set of neo-soul songs that conveyed a sunny vibe with hints of reggae, modern radio pop, smooth R&B and hardcore funk.

The Berklee College of Music graduate has spent time on the international concert circuit and in recording studios lending her voice to performances and recordings by a diverse catalogue of modern music heavy-hitters including Talib Kweli, Trombone Shorty, the Wu-Tang Clan and Willie Nelson. All of that experience adds up to Lilla being a very assured and gracious performer of her own songs. Tall and graceful and blessed with a voice that ventured into the upper octaves with ease, she and her band kept the dance floor full and also gave us wallflowers plenty to enjoy both visually and sonically.

Set closer “All I Do,” by Stevie Wonder, featured duet vocals with keyboardist Flowers in a version that combined disco rhythms, entwined voices, and a series of slowly building musical interludes that moved from player to player as the singer introduced them. And the final crescendo featured some tastefully applied vocal acrobatics that left us sharing a lovely moment with an artist who obviously enjoys putting every effort into what was a very satisfying performance.