Meshell Ndegeocello has been on my mind since her side-shows in Sydney and Melbourne were announced ahead of two dates at Bluesfest in Byron Bay.

You couldn’t get me to Bluesfest if you paid me big wads of dosh – the idea of spending three days in the company of thousands of increasingly sweaty and smelly music fans is not for me and being a born-and-bred son of the Shire makes the choice of the Sydney or Melbourne side gigs a no-brainer.

I’ve not been to the Factory Theatre in Marrickville before but its a surprisingly funky little place nestled on a bend on Sydney’s other Victoria Road and next door to Gelato Messina, the best Italian icecream I’ve had in many a year.

Once you weave through the Factory Theatre’s industrial strength entrance there is a nice open-air bar with plenty of punters necking a few before the show. Inside and up the stairs there’s another bar and a smallish, comfortable theatre space with seating in rows A through Q, but why’d they leave out row “O”? – for about 450 and standing room near the bar for another hundred or so.

The audience is a genteel mix of queers of all ages and genders, inner-city hipsters of indeterminate ages and preferences and music fans like me who’ve been listening to Meshell for 20 years and more on disc but never had a chance to see her particularly taut and punchy brand of funk/jazz/rock before tonight.

That audience, of course, welcomes Meshell Ndegeocello (ən-DAY-gay-oh-CHEL-oh) like a long-lost lover returned to our arms.

Our long-lost-but-now-foundling is an essentially shy person – this June 2023 interview by Daniel Felthensal in The Guardian is as close as you’ll get to Meshell opening up about the demons – and inspirations – behind much of her music.

On stage Meshell is humble, gracious and welcoming of our tributes and applause after each song, applause that later rises with us to our feet with arms aloft at her merest beckoning in the encore. For a moment I thought I was back in a Missionary Baptist church in the Mississippi Delta on a Sunday morning rather than a suburb in Sydney’s inner west on a Monday night.  

Meshell and her 3 piece band are one of those all-too-rare combinations that sound much bigger than the sum of their not insubstantial parts.

For mine we didn’t get enough of Meshell’s bass guitar playing – she wields that thing likes its a rumbling subterranean beast with bite – though she put in a lot of work on the bottom end of her Mellotron keys.

Christopher Bruce on acoustic and electric guitars provided solid backing for Meshell’s bass riffs and packed plenty of gaps that another guitar or a bigger suite of keyboards might ordinarily have filled.

The first few notes I heard from Jake Sherman had that unmistakeable swirl and punch that only a Hammond B3 organ and accompanying – of course – Leslie rotating speaker cabinet can give. Jake also hit a few riffs on a Rhodes piano during the night that provided the textbook warmth, texture and tones that only the Fender can bring.

Abraham Rounds on drums and percussion was now providing the deftest of touches … riding a drum stick along the edge of his cymbals, and next trilling 16th hi-hat notes punctuated by snapping rimshots on the (just) off beat and more. He’d lay down a solid 4 beat bed in one song and riff off every surface before and around him in the next one. I wasn’t alone in having my eyes and ears drawn to him all night.

All up it was a great – though short – main set at just on 75 minutes followed by a fifteen minute encore.

I didn’t feel cheated by the brevity but some may have.

What I did feel cheated by was what for the first half of the show I thought was a very poor lightshow that I hoped would improve as the gig went on.

It didn’t.

The stage lighting was generally a muddy wash of funeral blue followed by an over-saturated red or gluggy purple, pin-pricked by golden yellow spots focussed on Meshell from the lighting truss at the rear of the stage.

I was prepared to give the lighting trog a “what for?” at the end of the show before the front-of-house sound engineer told me that the lighting design was of Meshell’s choosing. Apparently she didn’t want any bright lights shining in her eyes.

The lack of any front-on lighting – they were used on support act Beckah Amani – meant that for most of the show we couldn’t see anything but incidental light on Meshell’s face or those of her band.

I wasn’t alone in expecting better. There are ways and means by which Meshell’s face could be lit and thus seen by her loving audience in a way that wouldn’t blind or distract her.

The show was opened by a lovely suite of songs by Beckah Amani, a Tanzanian-Australia with a voice of enormous dynamic range – think Adele or Jenifer Hudson – and while she might not yet have hit those heights she is one to watch out for and listen to, particularly if you like songs well sung of love, love lost and lessons learnt.  

Meshell Ndegeocello’s latest album, The Omnichord Real Book, is out now on Blue Note Records. She and her band will be playing at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall in the Melbourne Recital Centre on Tuesday 26 March and at Bluesfest at Byron Bay on Thursday 28th and Friday 29th March 2024.