Corinne Bailey Rae moves around the stage without speaking, holding small instruments and directing them towards amplifiers and her bandmates as if she is purifying the area with sage. The air is filled with the sounds of percussion and a saxophone being explored cautiously. She grabs a singing bowl, its deep sound piercing through the surrounding ambience, and then puts on an electric guitar and starts to sing. The song is titled A Spell, A Prayer, and it serves as a call to action. “We yearn to make our mark in history,” she recites, “…to unravel every strand of suffering.”
Throughout the majority of her professional life, Bailey Rae has gained recognition for her effortless and soulful songs. Her track “Put Your Records On” from 2006 has become ingrained in popular culture and is a staple on smooth hits radio. She went on to receive accolades such as Mobos and Grammys for her debut self-titled album, which sold over 4 million copies in the same year. However, it may come as a surprise to see this more esteemed version of Bailey Rae performing at a 300-person capacity arts space, especially after a string of low-key shows in North America.
However, she has always been a more multifaceted artist than her initial success implied. While “Put Your Records On” may seem gentle, it actually celebrates the strength of women. The song also references an appreciation for afro hairstyles. Prior to pursuing a solo career, Bailey Rae was a member of an all-female guitar group called Helen.
Unfortunately, a tragic event occurred during the pinnacle of her achievements. Her sophomore album, The Sea (2010), dealt with the unexpected passing of her husband, jazz musician Jason Rae. Six years later, her third album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, tried to recapture the effortless vibe of her previous music. However, in recent interviews discussing her latest album, Black Rainbows, released in September, Bailey Rae reflected on that time as a difficult and frustrating period where she was determined to write popular songs that just wouldn’t materialize.
Originally conceived as a side project, this fourth album marks a significant artistic shift for Bailey Rae. Shedding her previous lightweight image, she takes on electric guitar and vocals with raw intensity. Exploring themes of racism, Blackness, and the power of anger and joy, her polyphonic songs incorporate elements of punk, soul, and spiritual jazz. The addition of flute, sax, and polyrhythms creates a dynamic blend that occasionally veers into house music territory.
Coming up next is Erasure, a three-minute song filled with intense and rough guitar playing – the kind of track that warrants a moshpit but unfortunately does not receive one (as the crowd is not that type). While on tour in 2017, Bailey Rae stumbled upon a museum in Chicago’s South Side. This museum, called the Stony Island Arts Bank, was created by the versatile artist Theaster Gates and serves as an archive for the record collection of Chicago house pioneer Frankie Knuckles, an extensive collection of Ebony magazine, and a shocking assortment of “negrobilia” – household items that depict Black people in degrading ways. It is a depiction of a Black child’s face on an ashtray that Bailey Rae passionately sings about as the band plays on.
During breaks between songs, Bailey Rae shares the inspiration behind each track, almost as if she is guiding the audience through a historical archive. One example is when she discusses a photo in Ebony magazine of Audrey Smaltz, a beauty pageant winner who was crowned Miss New York Transit in 1954. This photo served as the catalyst for Bailey Rae’s punk-influenced song, “New York Transit Queen.” Another song, “Peach Velvet Sky,” is a stripped-down performance with just Bailey Rae and her keyboard-player partner, Steve Brown. This song imagines the sky as seen by Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman who spent seven years hiding in a crawl space. Jacobs’ experiences were published in 1861 as “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” As Bailey Rae sings, her thumb and finger mimic the tiny borehole that Jacobs carved to see outside, showcasing her agile and nuanced voice.
Over time, songs are being substituted with longer performances. The captivating track Before the Throne of the Invisible God is a spontaneous “sound bath” (according to Bailey Rae) that elicits a sense of wonder in the presence of the indescribable – as well as the tangible. The inspiration for the song, the church complex of Lalibela in Ethiopia, was meticulously carved out of sandstone as far back as the 7th century – showcasing the technical expertise of Africa. Bailey Rae’s words reflect on the throne created for God in one of the buildings, while saxophonist Aaron Burnett’s winding melodies pay homage to Ethiopian jazz styles.
The evening concludes with an unnecessary additional performance of Bailey Rae’s first song, “Like a Star.” While the audience enjoys it, the true highlight of the concert is “Put It Down,” a lively song inspired by a night of dancing at the Chicago arts bank. Attendees wrote their deepest struggles on paper and placed them in a bowl, which was then burned at the end of the night’s festivities (with DJ Duane Powell on the turntables).
In a short period of approximately 15 minutes, Bailey Rae’s band shifts Put It Down from a jazz style to a heavier trip-hop sound. The song then gradually transitions into yet another style. The addition of a consistent beat transforms the elegant hall into a small jazz party, with various band members taking solos. Eventually, Bailey Rae joins the audience to dance, embracing her creative liberty and releasing her troubles.