On Friday at SXSW, the two soul singers performed individual sets and teamed up for a series of covers at an intimate event that was the culmination of the Amplifier Center Stage program, a partnership between Hyundai and the Grammy’s that aims to help up-and-coming musicians by pairing them with established artists for mentorships.
The show began with sets from the 2014 winners of the program. 19-year-old Jessica Faith started the night with a set of lovely piano ballads. In an interview prior to her showcase, Faith spoke about what it meant to be one of the winners of the Grammy Amplifier contest, in which aspiring musicians submitted songs that were judged by a panel of artists including Ariana Grande, Hunter Hayes, and Kendrick Lamar.
“I never thought that I would win,” Faith said. “Even when I got in the top 25 I was like ‘I’m not gonna win.’”
But win she did, and it was easy to see the promise of the young singer-songwriter in her performance. Next up was the band Bonavox, an L.A.-based group comprised of members from all over the globe. Melodic and dynamic, the group’s set served as a reminder that small local bands can produce music every bit as catchy and accessible as anything on the radio. French singer Eyango finished off the opening showcase with some ultra-smooth R&B, pairing with a bassist who played a 12-string fretless bass, an instrument that’s a wonder to behold.
Following the openers, Aloe Blacc took the stage to perform a set of songs culled from his excellent new album Lift Your Spirit. Backed by a 7-piece band, he opened with a performance of his new hit “The Man,” before performing an acoustic version of his smash hit “Wake Up” with Avicii, which went to number one in over 100 countries worldwide. Looking extremely sharp in a grey suit, there’s a very serene quality to Blacc in both his voice and stage presence, and his band was dialed in and sharp.
“It’s such a good feeling to wake up in the morning and know I get to sing songs for you all,” Blacc said at one point. Based on the rapturous response to his set, that sentiment was mutual.
Allen Stone performed next and from the moment he started singing, it was apparent why he’s a rising star in the soul music scene. With his long, curly blonde hair, Harley Davidson t-shirt, and camo pants, Stone looks more like your office’s IT guy than a soul singer but his voice is pure butter. To date, Stone’s biggest credit is on “Neon Cathedral” by fellow Washingtonians Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, but when his major label debut drops later this year, that’s likely to change. Opening with the gospel-tinged “Sleep,” Stone absolutely murdered his set, winning over those in the crowd who had never heard of him before.
Following a quick Q&A, the two singers collaborated on a series of covers that brought down the house. First up was Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a song that Stone has done an acoustic version of in the past. Fleshed out with Blacc’s band, the two traded verses for possibly greatest Marvin Gaye-oriented team up since his days with Tammi Terrell.
Next was a cover of "Billie Jean", which Blacc has been including as part of his many sets down at SXSW (he told the crowd during the Q&A that he’s played 15 shows during the music festival). The smoky, bluesy version of the song is utterly unrecognizable from the Michael Jackson original, and it’s amazing to see the dance-floor classic repurposed into a mournful, cautionary tale about lusting after the wrong woman.
The final song they did together was an acoustic version of Sam Cooke’s “Change Gonna Come” which, like “Billie Jean,” was completely transformed, in this case, from a ballad into something truly desperate and pleading thanks to the sparse arrangement.
Stone then left the stage and Blacc closed his set with the new song “Can You Do This,” complete with a Soul Train-inspired dance line. Blacc left the stage with his band playing their version of “N***as in Paris” which, sadly, Blacc did not come out and rap over. For his encore, Blacc did a relatively faithful but fantastic version of “California Dreaming,” ending the evening on high note.
From the musicians who opened the show to Blacc and Stone to the delighted crowd, the Amplifier Center Stage Spotlight show was one giant win for everyone.