Live: Neneh Cherry Finally Takes Manhattan

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It seems sort of baffling that Neneh Cherry’s first ever New York City concert should only come this past Friday, some 25 years after her chart success peaked with the stone-classic 1989 single “Buffalo Stance”. She teased the Highline Ballroom crowd with faux naivete over her delayed debut, quoting Stevie Wonder’s “Living For the City”.

“Wow, New York. Just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything.”

She couldn’t quite deliver the line with a straight face. Cherry is, of course, no style rookie.

She’s not a NYC newbie, either. She lived in Long Island City as a tween, in a loft owned by her jazz legend step-father Don Cherry in a building that also housed members of Talking Heads. She wasn’t a likely victim of big city nerves, besides. On stage, she had a casual but formidable air.

Though never again as widely popular as she was in the mid-90s, Cherry’s earned her reputation as an artist head of the curve. Trip-hop, for example, owed a lot to her cross-genre combinations of hip-hop and electronics. In a Village Voice interview ahead of the show, Cherry mentioned St. Vincent and FKA Twigs as possible artistic decendants, though she seemed to mean that more in terms of individualism and striking presentation than actual sound. You can hear more traces of her hit record, Raw Like Sushi, in songs like Shamir’s “On the Regular” or in some of the freer-flowing moments of Azealia Banks’ Broke With Expensive Taste. Both have traces of Cherry’s seamless movement from rapped verses to sung hooks, her spirit of fun that’s not quite concealing a steely, “don’t fuck with me” attitude. The room was full, though there wasn’t overwhelming evidence of newfound currents of youth fandom on the floor. The average age in the room was likely higher than the ticket price.

This show, performed with the minimal backing of London-based brother duo RocketNumberNine, skipped the 80s and 90s almost entirely. It focused instead on songs from her cool 2014 album, Blank Project. Produced by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebdan, its sound is slower with more smolder and soul than sass. Critically, it was well-regarded, though all but ignored in the discussion of the year’s best.  Live, the minimal set-up played to her favor, with beats and chords setting up a loose outline that drew the room’s focus to Cherry’s still estimable charisma and vocal presence. Spooky single “Spit Three Times” landed somewhere near Massive Attack. Working around more bashing synth repetitions, she sounded almost like Suicide, if informed by R & B. (Considering she once played in The Slits, and has more recently covered “Dream Baby Dream” this made perfect sense.)

“Buffalo Stance” came as a crowd-pleasing encore, though stripped down and slightly slowed to keep it in line with the rest of the set. She was far too cool to allow any chance of awkward self-karaoke. It was purposely a little less fizzy than the original, missing its distinguishing record scratches. But there was still a glint in her eye as she remembered the dissed gigolos of her heyday, the ones who never managed to come up with a compelling answer to the eternal question, “Huh… sucka?”

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