“Omega [Rae] is the best female vocalist in the Bay,” guitarist Graal Swartz of Soul Mechanix told Oakulture, following the band’s set on Saturday at the West Oakland Grown Harvest Festival. Bandleader Swartz might be a little biased, but one can actually make a decent case for his argument. Rae had just smoked her way through lead vocal turns on Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” and the S.O.S. Band’s “Take Your Time (Do It Right),” while adding subtle yet strong nuances to tunes by Sly Stone, Blackstreet, Rick James and The Time. Her spot-on harmonies and fills noticeably made the rest of the band better, and she did it all with the smooth self-assurance of a born singer. It was the type of world-class performance you’d expect to see at a classy, upscale lounge, not a West Oakland street party.
Swartz’ comment got Oakulture thinking about The Town’s female vocalists. We had to conclude that, in this category, the city has produced an embarrassment of riches. In addition to nationally-known artists like Ledisi, Keyshia Cole, LaToya London and Goapele, and legendary female groups like the Pointer Sisters and En Vogue, there are quite a few best-kept secrets out presently out there, including hip-hop/ R&B-leaning artists Netta Brielle, Jimmie Reign, and Glam I. Rock and soul/rock divas Viveca Hawkins and Femi. While “best” is an arbitrary term, it’s clear that the talent level here is off the chain. What’s more, there’s miles and miles of stylistic range and aesthetic variation between all these versatile singers.
Speaking of versatility, Rae proved Saturday she’s a capable channeler of classic R&B but she first made her name as the lead vocalist of Afro-Mystik, an electronic music outfit signed to Om in the early 2000s. She might just be the hardest-working woman in Bay Area show business these days. In addition to appearing now and again with Soul Mechanix, Curtis Bumpy, and Entourage, she fronts her own band oMega LIVE!—whose recent gigs include OMCA’s “Off the Grid” and the Laurel St. Fair—and is a member of the 415s, a 10-pc. “Elite Variety, Party, Dance Band catering to high-end social, charity and corporate events,” according to their website.
If that wasn’t enough, Rae recently shared stages with Sheila E. and Fred Wesley and sang backgrounds on Sammy Hagar’s new record Sammy & Friends (that’s her on his cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” ) and Dynamic’s Microcosm. Her other credits include hip-hoppers Blackalicious, Zion-I and Lady L.U.S.T. , zydeco/blues outfit Pete Contino Band, and many more. Rae’s website says she’s working on a solo album, which we officially cannot wait to hear.
Last Wednesday at Yoshi’s, Hruby had a Sally Field moment. The 24 year-old Oakland singer realized the crowd really, really liked her. Not just her looks, which recall a more ethnic Ingrid Bergman, circa “Casablanca.” But her voice. Her style. Her taste. It was all on hit during her show, which she co-headlined with another local product, Chris Turner.
Hruby’s a modern vintage soul singer who infuses covers of songs by The Roots, D’Angelo, Jamiroquai, Bob Marley, Mos Def, Van Hunt, Al Green and her own material with a retro sheen that has a classic ring to it. Her phrasing and delivery sits right on the cusp between R&B and jazz, at some times evoking Dinah Washington and, at others, reminiscent of Jill Scott. She bends notes fluidly, without crossing over into jazz-scat territory. She proved as capable at handling torchy romantic ballads as uptempo, party-friendly material; her range extends from jazz and blues standards to classic R&B to original songs.
Best of all, she sings with a lot of emotion, inhabiting each song like a well-worn sweater. “Let it out, let it go/ hold back the tears no longer,” she sang on “A Stones Throw Away,” and on “Soon Come,” she wrapped her vocals in a sensual lyrical cocoon: “we kiss and the sky falls/ we touch and the moon calls.” She dedicated her version of Green’s “Simply Beautiful” to her godmother, whom she credited for her taste in music.
Hruby’s stage presence was waifish yet confident; she carried herself with the air of someone who’s been singing all her life. Thankfully, she downplayed her sexuality, allowing the audience to focus on her talent – and that voice. And, in a neat bit of role-reversal, she backed up Turner when he took over lead vocal duties, just as he had done for her.
Turner is another find, a certifiable soul-man with a killer falsetto (watch out, Martin Luther!) who joins a long list of Oakland soul-men before him. Like any R&B cat worth his salt, you can hear traces of influences like Marvin Gaye and Ron Isley in his music, yet it would be a misnomer to call him derivative. At its core, soul singing is about displaying one’s vulnerability, and it’s not easy for a dude to cover Sade’s “Kiss of Life” and still sound masculine, as Turner did.
If Hruby was all cool sensuality, Jennifer Johns’ dynamic tends more toward fire. Johns turned up the heat at her recent New Parish mixtape release party for Chronicles of the Aquarian Mind, her new collaboration with the ubiquitous Kev Choice. An Oakland native, Johns has been on the local music scene since the mid-2000s, when she emerged as a hyperactive, fusion-minded artist incorporating hip-hop, electronic music, reggae and soul into her two albums, HeavyElectroMagneticSoularPoeticJungleHop and Painting on Wax.
Over the years, Johns has transitioned from sultry sexpot B-girl to dreadlocked eco-activist: a former Green For All fellow and co-founder of GoLive: RealFood, she’s touted food justice and sustainable agriculture and been involved with causes ranging from Oscar Grant and Occupy Oakland rallies to the Respect Our City campaign, and the HueMan Project. She’s frequently collaborated with Choice and other local artists, yet it’s been awhile since she’s released any substantive new material.
Clearly, Johns was overdue, and she erupted like a soulful volcano all over the New Parish stage. Buzz is already circulating about a new song she debuted that night, “Towned-Out,” and Choice has said the album reflects his best production work to date. Another new tune, “Aquarius” is available as a pay-what-you-will download here.
Over the phone, Johns explains that the project grew from three original songs and one cover to 10 original songs and a cover. The recording process was fast and furious, as inspiration flourished during studio sessions; she wrote nine songs in three days. “You get into a studio with someone like a Kev Choice and your brain goes… ” (here she makes a bunch of unintelligible sounds, simulating a cerebellum awash in creativity).
Inspired by Black August and the Trayvon Martin situation, Johns describes Chronicles of the Aquarian Mind as “more evolutionary than revolutionary.” The project, which fuses social activism with music, is one long “love song to revolution, a soundtrack to the push that we’re in,” she says. However, “It doesn’t feel hella mad.” Instead of anger, the singer focused on “what was happening in the heart of humanity.” The result, she says, is “a celebration of a transformation that’s already underway.”
Though she remains “super-driven by activism,” working on this project has reoriented her to her musical side. The way she sees it, “part of my job as a siren is to shed light on the beautiful things that are happening.” We wouldn’t have it any other way.
This Week’s Picks:
Pecha Kucha Night Oakland w/ presenters Hodari Davis, Favianna Rodriguez, TooFly, Nancy Hernandez, Ayesha Walker & Eddie Zazueta, Rachel “Pixelina” Escoto, Eric Arnold, Andre Rosario, Diana Alonzo & Tyrese Johnson, 10/10, 6:30 pm, $10, The New Parkway, 474 24th St.
Broaklyn Film & Theater Co. Fall Season: Nothing But a Man, Let the Fire Burn, Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer, Mother of George. 10/10-11/26, 1949 Telegraph Ave.
Life Is Living Festival with dead prez, Kimiko Joy, Mik Nawooj, Rico Pabon, YGB GOLD, The Cipher ft. Do Dat, Tommie Sheppard and 30+ Bay Area MC’s, Art Engagement with Favianna Rodriguez, Keba Konte, K DUB, Karen Seneferu, Town Park skate exhibition with K-Dub, Estria Grafiti Battle, much more. 10/12, 10am-6pm, free, De Fremery Park, 18th/Adeline.
Fela Birthday Celebration w/ Rasaki Oladokun (King Sunny Ade), Michael Onas (Worldbeat/ Waxxhead), Vince Gbenga (afrospirit/ KKUP), Tunde “DJ Tunde” Elegbede, 10/12, 9pm, $15-$25, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, 410 14th St.
Soul Mechanix at October Funk Fest, 10/12, 10pm, One Fam Culture Club, 1606 7th.