How do you open a new arts complex in New York City — one that costs nearly half a billion dollars and is on the edge of a glittery enclave that locals have swiftly rejected as a wealthy gated community — without wallowing in cultural elitism? Alex Poots, the Scottish artistic director of the Shed — which opened on Friday night without much pomp but plenty of circumstance — must have been worrying about that for years.
As the former director of the Manchester International Festival, he’s leaning into his global connections to carve out something distinctive in a crowded landscape, and the programming already has the whiff of Eurocentric sophistication, including: an immersive performance commissioned from composers Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt, with painter Gerhard Richter; another original work written by poet and experimental writer Ann Carson for actor Ben Whishaw and opera luminary Renée Fleming; something by Bjork titled Cornucopia that is so very Bjork no one even knows what to call it. So there was a lot riding on the first production in this what-is-it, we-hope-it’s-good performance space — and the cognoscenti didn’t want to fuck it up.
So in an impossible case like this, who do you turn to? Poots tapped British artist and Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, who conceived of a program titled Soundtrack of America, which encompasses five nights of concerts tracing a family tree of black music in the United States from 1619, when the first slave ships arrived from Africa, to today.
As McQueen explained on the rainy Friday night to the 2,000-plus assembled in the McCourt, the eight-story hangar-style flexi-space, he realized while filming 12 Years a Slave in Louisiana that there was no institution dedicated to African-American music. “We wanted to have people onstage enjoying the music that they make, in the country that made that music, through pain and suffering but also through joy,” he said, dressed whimsically in black short pants and yellow sneakers and socks. So he turned to the legendary Quincy Jones as music director. Having orchestrated many too-good-to-be-true productions during his extraordinary career, Jones could have called up heavy-hitters to blow the roof off the Shed. The curators instead chose to highlight emerging talent along with the tutelage of Maureen Mahon as “chief academic advisor” on the project.
As the audience stood expectantly in the cavernous hall, wearing coats and warming themselves on this unseasonable chilly April evening, the sound of a marching band erupted as doors behind the makeshift plywood stage were thrown wide and the 369th Experience military band, wearing mid-20th century period green fatigues, and members of the Howard University marching band took control of the room without any introduction, playing exuberant ragtime and jazz. When Jon Batiste later joined a cohort onstage, he further explained that they were performing pieces by James Reese Europe, who had first introduced jazz to Europe. “We’re summoning the ancestors!” Batiste proclaimed. “Gonna ask the ancestors to join us… This culture you gotta fight for it!” They then raised fists in solidarity before exiting.
Then the stage doors opened, revealing a 10-piece band, the GP Experience, led by chief music director Greg Phillinganes. The first performer, the singer and keyboard player PJ Morton, played Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” “Higher Ground” in homage to Stevie Wonder, and ended with his original composition, “First Began.” It was an emphatic moment of covers and new music, though difficult to stir a curious crowd this way.
Victory, the RocNation-signed singer-songwriter, warmed the audience with her incandescent rendition of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” as she played acoustic guitar and introduced her own folk-tinged originals to the crowd of curious neophytes with the band as backup. North Carolina rapper Rapsody got the crowd back in the groove with her take on the Fugees’ “Ready or Not” and Victory joined her for a chilling rendition of “Strange Fruit” with Rapsody rapping along. By the time we got to the tap-dancing interlude by Michela Marino Lerman to Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” it was beginning to feel a bit like what upper-middle class white Europeans think matters when it comes to black music. Then it all wrapped with singer Sheléa banging out a Whitney Houston medley and a tribute to Aretha Franklin. Sure, a good time, but what was the message exactly?
In a city and a scene that is always looking for a special “moment,” there were none to be had at this inaugural event. All the talented musicians and performers did an excellent job to enliven a disorganized and confusing program, but it was clear that audiences yearned for a surprise guest: Yet there were no Beyoncé or Jay-Z sightings; no Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Janelle Monaé or Lizzo cameos. It’s admirable that the Soundtrack of America is dedicated to showcasing new talent — the four other nights include Tank and the Bangas, Fantastic Negrito, Oshun and Phony Ppl, among many other distinctive African-American voices — but it also needs to feel vital, part of the heartbeat of today’s music.
“You are part of history tonight,” Jones had intoned triumphantly at the beginning of the night. “This is indigenous music born on plantation and juke joints.” But it felt like black America had been yoked into service once again — to graft a genealogy onto an empty space, to bring soul to a shimmering dream and to expiate the sins of all the rich white people who made sure the building existed. Now the question remains: What next?