As far as albums of the year go, Solange's A Seat at the Table is 2016's runaway surprise story. Across 21 tracks, the younger sister of bona fide musical royalty carves out her own space, exploring deeply themes of black existence, family, anger, hopelessness, and ultimately self-love and empowerment. The day it was released, I played it four times in a row, mesmerized; it would go on to be named the No. 1 album of the year by Pitchfork, NPR, and Spin.
So when Solange announced a last-minute show in Oakland, it didn't matter that the advertised set was short (a "trio of songs" from A Seat at the Table), or that the tickets, priced at $35, were trickled out on a puzzling 50-people-a-day allotment. This show was something special. A dozen people I know tried to go, and judging by the size of the crowd on the sidewalk outside the Starline Social Club last night hoping to get in, they weren't alone.
And yes, because the night was a benefit showcase instead of a headlining concert, Solange's set was short. After album openers "Rise" and "Weary," she and her full band ran through faithful renditions of A Seat at the Table’s "Cranes in the Sky" and "Don't Touch My Hair" -- and that was it. Did it matter? Hell no.
Here's the part where I try to explain how lithe, elegant, and poetic Solange's performances have become: whereas she could, given her bloodline, belt out anguished emotion and execute dizzying choreography, there's something much more subtle and engaging going on. Her singing is pure and perfect, without seeming unattainable; her movements are sheer fluidity, but one can imagine them practiced in front of a bedroom mirror. In other words, there's an accessibility to Solange right now that feels right, and that says, essentially, "I am on your same plane of understanding."
For those to whom the themes of black womanhood throughout A Seat at the Table resonate most, that understanding means more than most can know. It was fitting, then, that the evening was a benefit for the Ella Baker Center, the Oakland organization working to end the cycle of over-policing and incarceration, and Son of a Saint, a New Orleans organization that provides support to fatherless young men. The fact that the GOODFest benefit organizers picked author Jeff Chang (Can't Stop Won't Stop; Who We Be) to emcee the night shows that they did their homework.
It helped, too, to have erstwhile Oakland opener Fantastic Negrito turn in the most fiery set I've seen from him, and, in contrast, a fragile and utterly time-stopping performance from Kelsey Lu, a looping cellist and singer from Brooklyn. But the night was easily Solange's, evidenced by the massive sound system and light rig brought in just for her set, as well as what looked like new plywood freshly installed on the stage floor.
Will she be back for a full set next year? "I cannot wait," she said at the night's end, "to work on my show and come back to see all of you guys."
But you best believe: when she does, it'll be in a bigger venue.