Juliette Ashby was in constant motion. Her hands, her arms, her body all swayed and circled and pointed and touched as she sang, hypnotizing us, drawing us in, capturing us in the heart inside her bare chest. Tall, beautiful and confident, yet down-to-earth, Ashby took the stage Friday night at the Hotel Café in Hollywood and looked over the packed room with a smile of satisfaction and greeting. Statuesque in skintight black toreador pants and a lime green silk sleeveless blouse open down to her silver belt buckle, seemingly without make up, she radiated not so much sensuality as openness and honesty. The songs she gave us were exactly that – open and honest, and they proved beyond a doubt that she is one of the most talented entertainers on either side of the Atlantic.
Ashby is known as a neo-soul, R&B singer-songwriter, but she is so much more. With a high-pitched, almost Jamaican voice that ranges from reggae to soul and R&B, she is simply in a universe by herself. There is no one like her. When she left the stage Friday night, it was an end of a nine-song set, but the beginning of a transatlantic love affair with her new California fans.
She and her guitarist opened with a stripped down rendition of “Grow Like a Seed”, weaving its complex lines and rhythms together like a trance dance, without benefit of the strong calypso band and effects of the recorded version. Just her, and we loved it. She shifted gears to “Make it or Not”, a free download on her website, leaning forward and touching her heart as if she were singing to you, personally, even though the words say “I do this for me.”
She followed with the gentle “Home” and then the heart wrenching “Hoping”, about her friend Amy Winehouse, pulling the tears out of us with the lines I’m trying to look back to where it went wrong years ago/When I look back it’s plain to see that/There were other people pushing you down this road. She introduced “Home” with a short story of Winehouse, deepening her relationship with the audience as if, for tonight, we were family.
She moved on and joked with the audience about the relationships that inhabit some of her songs, like “Waiting”, which many in the audience seemed to know, mouthing the refrain with her. She picked up the pace with “Not Trying to Get Over You” with its telling verse,
As the set neared the end of the set, she gave the audience what they had been waiting for, her hit song “Over & Over”. As she sang Falling in love with you, yes I be falling love with you/And it be like over and over again, the audience did just that…fell in love with her all over again. The standing crowd was swaying as they watched her body weave and her hands trace invisible patterns in the air.
She wrapped the set with her trademark earworm “Take It Over”. But her take on that song Friday night was slowed down, more personal as she pointed to people in the audience,, emphasizing the “bang, bang, bang”, enunciating each syllable as if she was in a musical conversation – a change from the reggae beat of the recording. The effect was deep and personal.
Juliette Ashby’s recordings are on the top of my playlist (as well as on Billboard charts and radio stations in the UK), but seeing her live was a new experience. Her videos and photographs project her beauty, but they don’t reveal the beautiful person who stood in the hard light of the Hotel Café stage and handed us her heart.
Juliette Ashby started a mutual love affair with America Friday night and I can only hope is grows with many more visits.
Patrick O’Heffernan. Host, Music FridayLive!
Juliette Ashby, Hotel Café 8/22/14
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