…not that she was ever lost. The discovery is in fact ours; those of us late in recognizing a “hidden gem” in the melting pot (and sometimes “cesspool”) of music today. It was an innocent enough discovery: an evening drive with a barrage of slow jam classics playing on Washington D.C.’s WHUR, when sandwiched between the some things “old” and even “borrowed,” I heard something “new”: a bare-all, no-holds-barred, melodic approach to an apology, titled, “Ugly Part of Me,” a song about a woman asking for forgiveness from her man for her off-the-cuff, unexpected and, well, ugly actions during an argument. Rare indeed, and not much heard of since Anita Baker’s 1994 “I Apologize.” And so my curiosity was peaked. Peaked enough to buy Avery’s 2010 self-titled, debut (and only) album; peaked enough to see what she was about live and in living color. I got that opportunity on a rainy, Wednesday night at D.C.’s famed Blues Alley, and what I witnessed was incomparable to anything she could have captured on disc.
There are some artists you simply have to see live. I quickly realized she is definitely one. Taking to the Blues Alley stage (her second appearance there), it soon became apparent why the show was sold out; why you could feel an anticipation in the air; why she already has “followers”—or as she calls them “family”—who have memorized her play list. Petite in stature with a closely cropped ‘do adorned with glitter and dolled up in flawless makeup, Avery sashayed to the baby grand piano, accompanied by her musical partner and guitarist, Dana Johnson; a local bass guitarist; and a drummer—and brought down the house for 90 minutes. With the musical talent of a Rachelle Ferrell; the stage presence and humor of a Ledisi; and the vocal chops of a Gladys Knight, simply put, the girl is bad.
In between songs, she’s candid in talking about her past (she’s a Spelman grad; a former choir director; a divorced mother of two); her present (the financial struggles to put out her next album; the woes of pining for that special someone); and her future (wanting to get married again for love, although she once promised the next time she did it, it would be for money). And in between the sharing and the laughter—even pausing to tell an audience member to “cut out all that talking over there,”—she’s a bona fide crooner; she's easily the real deal. If I wasn’t convinced from the delivery of her original material, I was sold as she effortlessly transitioned from her own songs to her rendition of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” to covers of classic Luther, Aretha, and Michael (no last names needed). But it wasn’t until she left the stage (all too soon for me) and returned to do an encore performance of gospel classics, that I witnessed what every artist should strive to be—a medium for something greater than themselves.
Her roots are clearly in the church. And like many secular artists who pay homage to those roots with a song or two on their albums (Brian McKnight has done so for years; so has El DeBarge), Avery features a jazzy rendition of “(The Lord is) Blessing Me” on hers. But what I have never seen is an artist perform those songs live, and turn their concert into a full-on worship experience. For when Avery flowed from “Blessing Me” into “Safe in His Arms,” a gospel classic that unless you’re without a pulse, you will feel something, concert goers were on their feet—with their hands lifted in praise! She took the crowd to church and even commanded, “Don’t feel funny about that Hennessey sitting on your table; you better praise Him while you got the chance. It could be your last.” Enough said. And we did. Before her final exit, she took it back to hand-clapping gospel, stood center stage, and broke the crowd down vocally to do what she also does well—direct. And, I must say, we sounded pretty damn good with that four-part harmony too—until she jumped back on the piano and purposely changed key. *sigh* Choir directors (smile).
By the time the house lights came up, I seriously considered staying for the second, almost-sold-out show. A definite first for me. But I decided to savor the moment, and play her CD on the drive home instead. It was satisfying, but nothing like seeing her do her thang in person, and was I ever happy I got to.
Although it often saddens me to see how often true talent is overlooked or to see the struggle many must endure just to get a quarter of the recognition the “not-so-talented” is so easily given (thanks many times to auto tune, a good weave, and a half-naked body parading around the stage), I felt absolute joy in experiencing this “hidden gem” for myself. For being able to say, “I saw her when….” for talent that big—and pure—cannot be contained for long. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment and hope, like most hidden gems, once they’re discovered, they’re properly put on display and revered. So Avery, continue to shine, girl. You are indeed a diamond—nothing rough about it.
Check out Avery Sunshine's official video for "Ugly Part of Me":