By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
As her 11-piece band vamped, Jill Scott casually walked onstage Thursday night at Starlight, a notebook tucked under her arm, like she was a guest on a talk show. The crowd greeted her like she was Oprah.
It was an appropriate introduction for a show that was equal parts Apollo Theater and confessional conversation. The two-hour setlist leaned heavily on Scott’s most recent album, “The Real Thing,” which documents the end of Scott’s 12-year relationship with ex-husband Lyzel Williams.
For someone delivering the 21st century edition of “Here My Dear,” Scott was surprisingly exuberant. The album’s title song is built on an arena rock guitar riff and ‘80s drum sound, and was so important to Scott that she repeated the second verse a capella after the song was over and brought the full band back in for a reprise.
For songs from her first album, most of which were written about her love for Williams, Scott relied on the audience to carry her. She introduced “A Long Walk” as a tribute to Roy Ayers before a sing-along erupted so forcefully that Scott relinquished the mic and let the crowd take over. It was a pattern repeated on much of her earlier material.
Scott is less a soul diva than a poet with pipes. Her spoken-word background shone when she would break a song down to discuss its themes. Scott is so comfortable talking with the audience that the moments chatting about relationships, sandals and women in music videos felt like friends dropping by for a living room chat.
She paused during “All I” to lament radio’s definition of old school – anything recorded between 1998 and 2004 – and showcase her backup singers with a medley of true old school classics: the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets,” Teena Marie’s “Portuguese Love” and Prince’s “Do Me Baby.” Scott later started the encore set with “Gimme,” her version of old school, complete with a Kool and the Gang bassline and “sock it to ya” backing vocals.
Starlight was far from full – screens were placed across the back section of seats – and while the heavily female crowd was attentive, there were plenty of side conversations happening. Scott may have been Queen Bee for the night, but she still had to share time with other friends.
Scott’s singing is more Ella than Aretha. “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)” – a surprising selection given the subject matter – opened with a piano solo and a near-operatic delivery. The show should have ended there. Scott introduced her band, left the stage and the house lights came on. But as people were filing toward the exits, she returned to deliver “And I Heard,” a new number she had to get off her chest. Less a song than a poem set to melody, Scott had the audience singing like a gospel choir as her band quietly shuffled offstage again. It was an ending that affirmed the endurance of love, despite the pain it might bring.
Opening act Bilal took the stage at 7:30 sharp for a solid half-hour set that saw a lot of people still finding their seats. The high point was the keyboard/conga interplay topped with Bilal’s scat vocals that blurred the lines between jazz and soul and led into “Sometimes.” Bilal dedicated his song “Soul Sister” to the late record producer J. Dilla.
The Rightness, Let It Be, The Real Thing, A Long Walk, Epiphany, Insomnia, Only You, Whenever You’re Around, Slowly Surely, Is It The Way, Do You Remember Me, How It Make You Feel, All I/Old School Medley, Come See Me, Imagination, Crown Royal (Encore:) Gimme, It’s Love, Golden, Hate On Me, He Loves Me (Encore 2:) And I Heard (new song)