Leela James and Bilal Prove We All Have a Little Soul

Bay Area critic reviews Leela James and Bilal show


Walking into the Grand Ballroom at The Regency Center, I did not expect to end upon a grown-and-sexy event with folks seated at tables.  These artists were anything but feather hat, froofy-froo R&B/soul acts, but whatev.  I guess.

What I mean to say each and every one of the musicians featured this night tore the effing house down, my Internet friends.  I really hope you were amongst the lucky bunch there and not Tweeting with your almost-Internet-boo instead.

Anthony David, Bilal, Leela James.  That is not a two openers and one main act deal, people - that is a freakin spectacular three-in-one special.

Atlanta-based Anthony David might have not been a name known to many - although there were definitely some folks there knowing, including myself - but that boy seemed to have charmed the crowd almost immediately.  At the technical end of his 30-minute set, he announced his instructions to play for an extra 20 minutes to an unequivocal response of wild cheers.

The real treat is that Anthony doesn't bring that annoyingly saccharine brand of soul music - he talks about real ish: cheating fathers, crooked cops, being black.  He also knows how to tailor to his audience: Cali = weed songs.  And when he does talk about love, his lyrics have an original poeticism saving him from hair-ripping clichés.  The vibration of his voice soothes and that little nose ring of his makes me want to bite his nose.  That's not wrong, is it?

His upcoming album is entitled, "As Above, So Below" - I cannot wait to cop.

Bilal.  That man.  I caught him backstage as he was insisting to his manager that he couldn't perform until he ate an apple.  Mid-way through chomping on a green Granny Smith, he freed up one hand for a handshake by holding down the apple to his chest with his left forearm.  The prized apple even almost slipped, but dude was focused.  I mean, that's Bilal - focused.  Really more of a humorous semi-philosophical space case, but - same thing.

First time I saw him perform was already way over due - about a year ago at Yoshi's San Francisco.  That was a little bit of a cocktail dress, legs crossed affair, though.  Although mind you, you'll still find me wylin the eff out on some ignorant ish in my cocktail dress.  Or jeans and a hoodie. Yes, at Yoshi's.  Yes, I do what I want!

Anyway - focus - Bilal not me.  Yeah, Yoshi's was some tame ass ish - I was waiting for crazy rip em to shreds, make your jaw drop, grab your heart out your chest and put in back in Bilal.  It went a little something like that this time around.  Fool was stomping around a storm, jerkin, thrustin, kickin a few mic stands along the way. He wailed.  He screamed.  Some stan-ish Leela fans called out for her in the middle of Bilal's set - did they not know that Billy boy don't give a fuh? "I get paid for this sh*t! I don't care if you don't like me!" Tell 'em!

Bilal is a theatrical man, accompanying his songs with storytelling full of visuals and facial expressions for days.  For instance, one of his monologues was a diatribe about a woman who had maybe just got too comfortable in the relationship.  "And you know, she just just sits there in bed" [insert Bilal impression].

"People call this some neo-soul sh*t," he laughed. "I get down on some rock sh*t."

I did not know Leela got down like she did.  I know she kills it on her tracks, but honestly I thought the little table setup was for her.  Newp.  "All the bougie people [sitting down] can leave" was the first thing out of homegirl's mouth.  She spent a good couple minutes conveying the message.  Up until this point everyone had been sitting, but the lady managed to get most of the room to finally stand up and get in front of the stage.

I have never seen anything like it before in my life.  No, I'm not talking about her jumping on the drum set platform and drumming backwards, her dropping and doing over 30 pushups in her dominatrix heeled boots, her crazy charisma.  None of that.  The clear cake-taker: I have never seen that many middle aged white folk call-and-responding on some black church ish in my life, ever. Ev-er.  It was a bit twilight zone-ish, but damn - go ahead, Leela.  Had everyone, including myself, captivated.  She clearly has an incredibly down fan base and while I'm pretty sure she didn't per se intend on her demographic - make that white people money, girl.

Her massive fro tipped her fiery stage persona as she rocked about traversing the stage side to side frequently.  She really had channeled some James Brown, whom she oft-referenced.  At the end she even taught her rainbow colored fans who had joined her on stage a dance a family member had taught her.  I think it's called the two-step.

But I might not be down.

Seher Sikandar is a Bay Area-based photographer and writer who covers art and lifestyle events. Check out her portfolio at rehescreative.com.

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