Corinne Bailey Rae Electrifies Blue Note Residency With ‘Black Rainbows’
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Corinne Bailey Rae Electrifies Blue Note Residency With ‘Black Rainbows’

Corinne Bailey Rae recently wrapped an eight-show residency at Manhattan’s beloved Blue Note Jazz Club, performing 2023’s Black Rainbows – which explores soul, garage rock, jazz, downtempo electronic and even a bit of house – in its entirely. That album was one of the year’s finest, but seeing it presented live — with Rae sharing the painful and inspiring stories of Black American history that galvanized her to make these songs – made it clear that the concepts and ideas behind the album are as rich and stunning as its musical tapestry.

Black Rainbows began taking shape when the English singer-songwriter visited The Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago’s South Side. The hybrid space, which Theaster Gates opened in 2015, is a gallery, media library and museum that encompasses everything from African American periodicals dating back to the 1940s to the personal vinyl collection of house godfather Frankie Knuckles to a collection of historical artifacts portraying Black people in blatantly racist ways. In short, it’s a complicated space dedicated to African American history, one that gives people the opportunity to confront the beautiful and the ugly in equal measure.

Rae’s visit morphed into an ongoing perusal of the collection, and soon, new songs began to take shape in her mind. A vintage photo of a teenage girl who won the “Miss New York Transit” title 70-some years ago inspired the riot grrrl energy of her song “New York Transit Queen” (Rae even tracked down and interviewed the woman, Audrey Smaltz); the story of writer/abolitionist Harriet Jacobs, who escaped slavery but spent seven years in a cramped hiding space, watching her children play through a peephole, informed the hopeful yet elegiac “Peach Velvet Sky”; advertisements from Valmor Products, a Chicago beauty brand geared toward African American women, led to the jazzy, ambient “He Will Follow You With His Eyes”; and a sweaty dance party to Knuckles’ records at the Stony Island Arts Bank resulted in the thumping “Put It Down.”

In the midst of performing “Put It Down” at the Blue Note on Friday (Feb. 16), a woman in the seated audience stood up and began dancing – greeting the sight with a smile, Rae stepped down from the stage to join her as the band kept the house-inflected groove going. And from the sax player to the drummer, that band was a knockout. Perhaps having Rae explain the stories that inspired the songs before playing them pushed her players to bring each one to vivid, vibrant life in that intimate space.

When it came time for the encore, Rae gamely trotted out her 2006 soul-pop gem “Put Your Records On” and the sweetly soulful “Trouble Sleeping” from the same album. It probably goes without saying that she’ll be forever associated with the former, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a timeless classic, one that’s recently found a Gen Z audience via a viral cover. But Black Rainbows stands as Rae’s finest artistic statement to date, an exquisite tapestry that electrifies both intellectually and emotionally – and seeing her present this layered work live is a gift.

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