The charismatic New York City-based R&B musician mixed melisma with witty repartee in a cabaret-like performance
SERPENTWITHFEET with LEE MO at the Drake Hotel on Friday, June 29. Rating: NNNN
“I do enjoying singing and I do enjoy music, but I also enjoy chat time,” Josiah Wise informed his audience two songs into a concert at the Drake Hotel. “I would like to be your poor man’s Oprah.” The queer New York City-based musician known as serpentwithfeet was last in town opening for Perfume Genius at the Mod Club, so this felt like the proper getting-to-know-you headlining set and he handily charmed the audience.
Wise is conversational, almost cabaret-like entertainer. Performing solo, he alternated between singing along to a pre-recorded track at centre stage and standing behind a keyboard playing drifting chords to songs that encompassed quivery vibrato, Mariahesque melisma, poetry, and rapid and rhythmic lyrical repetitions that mirrored his witty repartee.
He opened the show by traversing the small stage waving a blue pompom, his neon green tank top and glitter-soaked chest ablaze under the lights as he sang Whisper, the opening track from his recently released debut album, Soil. But when Wise settled in behind the keys the audience’s attention seemed most locked in.
His experimental take on R&B is baroque and expansive, exalting earthly delights of love and sex in songs that tackle familiar feelings from unexpected, but pointed, angles. While his pared-back stage show lacked the album’s grandeur, he made up for it by centering audience connection. Introducing the sighing ballad Messy, he mused about what it means to be pegged as the “messy” one by a lover and conversely how we might date someone with a messy reputation to offset our own messiness. Could the crowd relate? Their gusto during a call-and-response portion of the song was a strong indication.
Electronic beats might add a thunderous dissonance to serpentwithfeet’s earnest gospel, but the more pared-back aspects of his sound also emphasize the more traditional R&B themes and vocal inflections. It feels wrong to apply a term like “alt-R&B” to an artist like serpenwithfeet, whose music places experimentation and queerness clearly on a continuum rather than in a parallel universe. This connection was plainly apparent in his choice of opening act: Lee Mo, a commanding R&B singer from Philadelphia who covered Bobby Caldwell, King and Daniel Caesar and joined Wise briefly at the end of his set.
Wise doesn’t have the effortless gravitas of a traditionalist, but he has bewitching confidence. The crowd frequently shouted out, snapped fingers and dutifully sang along when instructed. For most of the show, his eyes were slightly obscured behind tinted glasses and a brimmed hat. He finally removed the glasses before ending the show with a captivating rendition of single Bless Ur Heart, which he interspersed with poetry by Nikki Giovanni and Yrsa Daley-Ward. He talked about queerness, celebrating Black men and how visibility in popular culture is important – but so is imagination. “If I don’t see Black, gay love, I can imagine it,” he said, smiling slyly.
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