Sometime during the late summer, not so far away from now actually and in a midst of that still growing curiosity of all that’s going on across the Atlantic, I happened upon the most vibrant video. Not since seeing the Alhambra had something from North Africa sparked the urge to ditch that travel list and desire to visit a far-flung place so quickly. It was the equivalent of glancing at a cover of National Geographic and-bam-decision made. Since then, I’ve yet to visit Morocco for more convenient locales on the East and West Coast of our fair (and under-appreciated by globally traveled Americans) country. Unlike the Alhambra, Lincoln Hall was not sold out in advance and those who trekked across from the Biograph Theater experienced the United States debut tour of Hindi Zahra, one of the more-acclaimed Moroccan-born singers of recent memory. To Hindi Tuesday night, Chicago was her Alhambra; only in the Windy City for such a fleeting moment she hadn’t the chance to see much of it. But before the night starts, here’s that video that brought me there that night:
How I missed her first ever Chicago performance is beyond me…but luckily, a Minneapolis chanteuse (on peut dire) just so happened to save this potential gaffe by co-headlining. That night, Dessa was just more than a week into Castor, the Twin (review) having been released. So when her and her band took to the stage that evening, you’d expect relief or excitement. We got that as the crowd cheered her to the mic as the band started into “Alibi”. Led by guitarist Dustin Kiel, any newcomer catches how at ease the Doomtree rapper/singer is on stage, yet tonight was something special. Chicago got extra elation when, after the song, she welcomed everyone, talking about the dingy venues she’s used to, how excited she is to have Castor out, and that her record release show is about to go down October 28th in Minneapolis’ Fitzgerald Theater. It’ll be a sit-down affair, complete with (we found out) a four-lettered tempered Dessa, much thanks to a swear jar. She quipped at the sophistication she’s about to get into, confessing, “We rent mini vans when we’re fancy.” But the long conversation came to an elated end, revealing she had just gotten off the phone; her album cracked the Billboard 200.
“Matches to Paper Dolls”, which is a fantastic song I feel would’ve been hard to improve upon had it been on the new release, brought the audience and band back into music mode. Well…proved me wrong. They injected a bit of a salsa into a bridge towards the end that perfectly fits the new live setup. “Mineshaft II” then was the most collective moment of the night, leaving it plainly evident that Dessa need not a band but an audience to back her up; it’s not this often you hear so many people singing along so passionately. Before going into “Palace”, Dessa spoke about something that will kick her skills up many notches. Along with the swear jar, she started taking vocal lessons “You have to really sound good” for radio. Then proceeded to demonstrate what she learned about breathing from your diaphragm.
“Sadie Hawkins” was a surprise that got everyone moving a little later in the set, even the bartender. Sounding exactly as it does on the last collective album, it has a hop to the beat you could only catch with an upright and skilled drumming from Joey van Phillips. It also gave everyone a display of the rapper’s rhythm to her rhymes, speeding up and tapping on the brakes without much effort. Shortly thereafter, the true highlight came in the form of a new song, a ballad as she announced, written by herself on piano. The song drifts away from rap, focusing more on singing. First impressions felt like a sneak peek into either a new phase of this Minnesota songwriter. Sometimes you crave an artist to break out of a shell, but with the new song, there’s no need to be worried about where she’s going years down the road. Billboard should be seeing her more often coming up.
“Don’t Forget” was the first song Hindi performed in Chicago, solo without her band except a backup percussionist and singer. It was a dreamy, slow acoustic song that I felt didn’t allude to what would come just thereafter if I had not heard Handmade before. Why? Because afterwards her band, a bassist, two guitarists and drummer in addition to the aforementioned singer, took to the stage for “Beautiful Tango”. Despite having the appearance of being nervous or anxious due to her first tour, the concert go-ers gradually warmed to her subtle, artfully restrained yet expansive voice as she imbued hints of jazz. She embraced these essences, which is why I feel she and Dessa were a daringly befitting bill, going into “Oursoul” with its light sway to “Fascination”. The latter was as beautiful as Handmade made it out to be. Soft, quick strums with a leisure, breezy feel gave our fleeting Indian summer evening meaning. For the unaccustomed, “Fascination” was the hook that drew them in on the line.
I couldn’t help but wonder what went into bringing her here. Despite being the third largest city in America, Chicago gets passed over despite its millions of city dwellers to NYC and LA. Hindi even mentioned NYC, which quickly drew a typical rouse from a couple people against the Big Apple (not me though…the Yankees are out of the playoffs so we’re all good here). Her gratitude was palpable in her expression and eyes more so than her timid English. Her band was quiet, but delved into delivering a surprise not often experienced in Chicago in “Bah Toufane”. An extended solo highlighted the oud guitarist, the music not lost one bit off the ears of those who were there. I personally haven’t seen one in concert other than, perhaps, just for show or added musician flair. But Lincoln Hall briefly wasn’t across from DePaul University for a moment there as the guitarist sent us far, far from Chicago and the hushed whispers of our impending winter. The oud became a flurry, stirring up the evening that led to hoots and claps leading right back to “Imik Si Mik”.
“Imik Si Mik” is a gorgeous song with alternating languages, the chorus in English with a bluesy beat. If you weren’t there that evening, or want to give a beachhead to Zahra’s music, start here. You’ll understand why the legendary Blue Note picked her up. Ending with “Stand Up”, she thanked the crowd once more only to get cheered back from behind the curtain for a final song. While the crowd thinned out, unfortunately, following Dessa, I’ve found something special about Chicago. In the years of concert going, we don’t care how many people are there, 5-10-5,000, doesn’t matter. We’re just happy you came, and we’ll do the best we can to cheer you on for performing. It was permeable Tuesday evening as Hindi Zahra did a wonderful, first performance in Chicago on her premiere U.S. tour.
Matches to Paper Dolls
Hindi Zahra Setlist:
The Man I Love
Kiss & Thrills
Set Me Free
Imik Si Mik
Broken Ones (Encore)