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Neo-soul artists perform with introspection and joy

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Neo-soul artists perform with introspection and joy
Taja Cheek, also known as L’Rain. PHOTO: NATHAN BAJAR

Before a panorama of Boston Harbor lit by boats drifting by as if to their music, neo-soul experimentalists Taja Cheek, who performs as L’Rain, and Khari Lucas, whose stage name is Contour, made their Boston debut Friday night at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.

Drawing on musical traditions of the African diaspora, including jazz, gospel and R&B, as well as contemporary and classical strains, each artist demonstrated poignant originality.

Opening the evening with a half-hour solo set, Lucas at times employed an electronic keyboard and guitar, laptop and book to supplement his primary instrument, a liquid voice that traveled between falsetto and a deep, romantic tenor. His subjects varied from personal appeals for greater closeness to calls for social justice.

Khari Lucas performs as Contour. PHOTO: GABRIEL RIVERA

With a self-effacing manner, the Charleston, South Carolina native delivered an introspective performance that induced a sense of rapt intimacy with the audience.

Repeating lines such as “Those who dream become lost in their own dreams,” Lucas picked up the keyboard to play delicate passages, and later, sampled clips from TV dramas, in an extended soliloquy on personal and social concerns.

Cheek, born and based in Brooklyn, is a multi-instrumentalist and composer. Also an associate curator at MoMA PS1 in Queens, she books live shows that complement visual arts exhibitions.

Cheek was raised around music, and her grandfather owned a jazz club in her childhood neighborhood, Crown Heights. As a music major at Yale University, she was trained in classical piano, cello and recorder. In 2017, while Cheek was recording her first album, her mother died. In her honor, she adopted the stage name L’Rain, pronounced “Lorraine,” the name of her mother. Cheek also gave the name to the album and to her band.

The title of Cheek’s second album, “Fatigue,” released in 2021, evokes the personal exhaustion of grief and slow healing as well as the societal wear and tear of the pandemic. Her website describes the album as “an exploration of … the audacity of joy in the wake of grief.”

On the ICA stage, Cheek and her ensemble performed a 50-minute set that unfolded nonstop except for a brief pause. Accompanying her were Ben Chapoteau-Katz on keyboard and saxophone, percussionist Tim Angulo, and Jachary on guitar.

Tall, barefoot and regal, with long, blond-tinted plaits, Cheek began by stepping up to the microphone and voicing what seemed like both a question and a command: “Can you repeat after me?” She led the audience in taking a series of deep breaths.

Then using both her voice and guitar, Cheek led her band and the audience on a far-reaching sonic and emotional journey.

Their momentum rose into a pulsing tide that filled the hall with vibrations, and climbed from there, soaring with joy. The tempo then downshifted into synthesizer-driven currents, punctuated with occasional near-acoustic turns. At another point, Cheek and her band fell into a deeply satisfying, sustained R&B groove that had heads swaying, before bursting into a stretch of cacophony. Along the way were crackling percussive jolts and vocal accents from Cheek that varied from wails and whoops to screams and cathartic laughter as well as warm harmonic refrains sung in unison with Jachary and Chapoteau-Katz. 

The wild ride earned L’Rain a standing ovation.