I will never forget the scene on stage at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles on May 26, 2004, when Fantasia Barrino became the third American Idol, beating a particularly impressive roster that included future Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson (and Williamsville native John Stevens). It was an incredible sight for television and for popular music.
Barrino had made impressive leaps in the competition, interpreting Gershwin’s “Summertime” with the kind of raw angst and South Carolinian Baptist Church-hewn grit that we rarely hear in American pop music anymore.
It was jaw-dropping for the popcorn-shoving Middle America watching from home. For Barrino, it was just another song. She came to slay, and that she did.
But that was 15 years, seven albums, and a few personal-made-public fiascos ago – “my situations,” she calls them: lawsuits, a suicide attempt, the ordinary love drama that strikes us all. The toddler she brought on stage during her victory lap is now 18 years old. She’s dropped not only “Barrino” from her persona, but seemingly all the baggage of the last many years of rocky fame. Her new album, “Sketchbook,” is proudly an independent release; it is a triumphant display of range, character and transcendence.
The Sketchbook Tour played Shea’s Thursday night, one of the first dates on the itinerary. She’s hitting theaters and arenas with a lineup that includes pseudo-soulful Robin Thicke and someone from YouTube with big hair and fake hips named the Bonfyre. (Singer Tank did not appear on the Buffalo date but is included on other dates.)
Whereas Fantasia delivers a fiery personal testimony from the moment she appears, kicking off her shoes after the second song, Thicke makes it clear how hard some people have to work at being authentic. If it weren’t for his infectious 2013 megahit “Blurred Lines,” which earned him and Pharrell Williams plenty of airplay and a lawsuit for copyright infringement, his set would have put me to sleep.
Ascendant falsetto voices on sensual white men – hey, Justin – work best when in contrast to something grounded, something earthy, something gutsy. It’s the foamy meringue on a confident lemon curd pie that makes that dish a dessert. Thicke is thin on the sweets. The Bonfyre, following this motif, is deflated cotton candy. Next.
We came for dinner. For food. For nourishment. Fantasia delivered.
The setlist included hits and throwbacks from throughout her career, a few bankable covers and an inclusive Gospel suite.
What’s most astounding about Fantasia’s performance is not her voice – that was ready for the stage before she was – but her stage presence. She is in full command of her production and her incredible all-woman band, which wove electric rock licks throughout the R&B set in what could be a nod to Janelle Monae or the most obvious inspiration of the night: Miss Tina Turner.
Among her many struts – telling an off-stage sound tech, between real-time lyrics, that she didn’t need her broken earpiece because “I’m a pro” – she is notably human. She holds the audience on her lap and not in her hand, commanding as much respect for themselves as for her. She is not the Queen but one of many in the room. On a quick cover of Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love,” she is a siren. A Beyonce you can touch; an Aretha you can impress.
“I may be out of breath, but it’s all coming from me you see,” she tells us between explosive, tribal-like dance breaks. We see you. Keep going, please.
Fantasia, Robin Thicke
Oct. 24 at Shea's Buffalo Theatre