From the gorgeous composition to the intensely personal storytelling, Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” was one of the best albums of 2016. She performed a good portion of the album live to an enraptured crowd in a stunning South by Southwest set Wednesday night, and it was pure magic.
Fans lined up for hours to catch one of the most anticipated sets of the week and the club was at capacity shortly after the doors opened at 9 p.m. She missed her 11 p.m. start time by almost 20 minutes, but the moment she hit the stage, all was forgiven. Backed by a four-piece combo, a two-piece horn section and a pair of backup singers and dancers, all in matching periwinkle outfits, she opened her set, the same way she opens the album, with the rippling harmonies of “Rise.”
It was like stepping into a dream. With intricately crafted choreography that incorporated the interpretive gestures of modern dance, the shoulder shimmies and hip-shakes of the club and the warrior stances of traditional African dance, she crafted dramatic stage pictures. As she sang, her voice caressed the tones. She inhabited the music completely and doing so, she brought the emotional meaning of the songs to life with such force that some of the women who crowded the barrier at the front of the stage wept openly when she played her Grammy-winning ode to heartbreak, “Cranes in the Sky.”
For the first half of the set she didn’t speak except through her songs, but when she did address the audience she was gracious and warm. “There are so many beautiful faces out there,” she said. As an artist, she explained, she felt grateful to have a fan base that had followed her through “such a long journey,” supporting her through many changes.
She drew the audience in as a whole, but “A Seat at the Table” is a profound meditation on the African-American experience and there were moments when she underlined that in her performance. She locked eyes with black folks in the audience while she sang the chorus of “F.U.B.U.” “All my (expetive) in the whole wide world / Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn / For us, this (expletive) is for us.” And when she returned to the stage after taking the set out with the throwback track “Losing You,” the encore “Don’t Touch My Hair” was dedicated to the black girls in the crowd.
The performance, like the album, was clearly guided by a deeply spiritual artistic vision. “I’m so grateful, and so humbled that you saw a light in me,” she said at one point.
In her engrossing hour-long set Wednesday night, that light was very bright, indeed.