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2018 Newport Jazz Festival Opening Night; Jose James Honors Bill Withers

OPENING NIGHT 2018 NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL AN ECLECTIC MIX

Dwight Casimere | 8/8/2018, 5 p.m.
At Opening Night of the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival, the esteemed young baritone Jose James appeared inexplicably in a retro ...

At Opening Night of the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival, the esteemed young baritone Jose James appeared inexplicably in a retro getup reminiscent of either Jimi Hendrix or Prince. The unfathomable wardrobe reference appeared to have little to do with the subject of his concert, a musical tribute to composer and singing artist Bill Withers. It was particularly baffling since through his entire career as a performer, Withers eschewed any trappings of the popular recording industry. In fact, his memorable, quietly soulful hits (Grandma's Hands, Hello, Like Before, among many) were, by design the very antithesis of the commercial pop/funk/soul that dominated the music scene at the height of his career.

After a somewhat faltering start, James's gained his vocal footing and his performance acumen accelerate. He gave a blistering performance of Grandma's Hands,perhaps Wither's most recognizable tune, and proceeded to dig his considerable vocal chops deep into Wither's contemplative lament, Hello, Like Before. This is what everyone came to see, not the tepid nonsense he started out with. Sadly, there was little in the way of a narrative thread throughout to she any light on a performer whose career seemed to ebb before most of today's concert-goers were even born. I would have like to have heard more about Bill Withers and his unlikely rise to fame, and the genesis of his poignant and highly personal songs. Yet, James managed, just for a moment,to make time stand still, casting a hush over the audience, with a watchful Mars, glittering high in the nighttime sky.