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The Preacher

Anthony Hamilton, Heather Headley, and Van Hunt, Lyric Opera House, May 10

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/17/2006

Anthony Hamilton’s second song at the Lyric Opera House last week was “Southern Stuff,” an ode to the women from his home state of North Carolina. Praising a young woman’s “Southern drawl,” he demonstrated a thick, seductive drawl of his own. When he compared her to “a Cadillac cool breeze in the ’70s,” he proclaimed his allegiance to the work of Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, and Al Green, a tradition he carries on admirably. And when he departed from the recorded version to embark on an extended, improvised, testifying coda, he revealed his roots in the church.

If Hamilton were nothing more than the finest Southern soul singer in 30 years, that would be cause enough for celebration. But he’s much more than that. “Southern Stuff” includes an anomalous line, “Intelligence is beauty,” and Hamilton imposed his sharp mind on every subject he addressed.

When he sang “Charlene,” his hit single from 2004, he presented the conflict between a musician’s career ambitions and his home life not as a melodramatic choice between right and wrong but as an impossible dilemma between two necessary pursuits. As nuanced as the lyrics were, the vocal beneath the spinning, dizzying disco ball at the Lyric was even subtler. Backed by three female singers and a crackerjack seven-piece band, Hamilton allowed his tenor to be pulled this way and that, between romance and pragmatism, long-term plans and short-term despair.

For the end of the show, Hamilton swapped his gray fedora and black tuxedo T-shirt for a white hat, white shirt, and white slacks to sing a medley of his explicitly religious “Pass Me Over” and his secular-advice hymn “Everybody.” Letting his band ride the groove, he even preached a bit, like Solomon Burke, to the finger-waving crowd.

But before this finale, Hamilton provided a very different view of religion, a story about a “Preacher’s Daughter” who fell into drugs and prostitution when her father was too busy wooing the church ladies and soliciting for the building fund. Hamilton’s storytelling skills as both a writer and composer were most obvious here. There may be no better singer/songwriter in American pop today.

Van Hunt—who may be the second most interesting new performer in R&B today—opened the show with a half-hour set that merely hinted at the rewards of his records. Obviously inspired by Prince, Hunt fronted a multiracial, bigender band that could groove on the slinky seduction number “If I Take You Home” and turn psychedelic on “Dust.” When the singer/guitarist segued from his own “Highlights” into Sly Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” Hunt signaled that he wanted to close the unnecessary gap between rock ’n’ roll guitar and R&B singing like his obvious role models: Stone, Prince, George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield, and the Isley Brothers.

In the middle set, Heather Headley displayed the magnificent soprano and stage presence that made her a star on Broadway in the productions of The Lion King and Aida. Dressed simply in a white halter top, a gold-edged gray skirt, and a tight ponytail, the tall, regal Headley stalked the stage like it was the most familiar turf she knew. Unfortunately, she squandered her obvious talent on a by-the-numbers diva formula. “I turn on the radio today, and I don’t hear real songs,” Headley told the Lyric audience, apparently unaware that her own singles are part of the problem.

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