R&B singer Lalah Hathaway brings soul to Coming Back Together weekend

Lalah Hathaway plays SU

Published: September 16, 2017
Lalah Hathaway performs at SU

On Friday night, Lalah Hathaway took roughly 1,300 concertgoers back in time to the 1980s and ‘90s. Hathaway was the musical performer for this year’s Coming Back Together reunion, which brings African American and Latino Syracuse University alumni to campus every three years for a weekend of celebration.

The daughter of soul singer Donny Hathaway, Lalah made her debut in the 1990s as a rhythm and blues singer, and has been releasing music and touring ever since. As she said to the predominantly older audience Friday night, “This is music for old people,” a category in which she clearly includes herself.

Hathaway took the stage with an organ player, a drummer, a DJ and two backing singers and began with an upbeat rendition of “If You Want To,” a modern R&B tune with layered vocals and a driving beat. After “If You Want To,” Hathaway slowed down for a newer original and then a cover of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Summertime.” As she sang the classic in a honey voice, the audience became fully engaged, a pattern that would hold for the rest of the night: during classic songs, Hathaway had total control over the crowd, but she would lose their attention a little during her more recent material.

Hathaway is an excellent performer. In addition to her beautiful voice, she has an easy stage presence, and she joked with the audience between and even during songs, goading them to put down their phones or sing along. When she was in the middle of a tune, her hands were constantly in motion, often caressing the air between herself and the microphone stand or snapping her fingers to the beat.

Her set was a mixture of originals and R&B standards, ranging from Anita Baker’s “Angel” to “Why Oh Why,” a song from her forthcoming album Honestly. She connected with the audience best during these older songs, which the crowd would often recognize after just a note or two. Hathaway milked this, focusing her stage banter on teasing the audience about its age (“This is for people who owned cassettes, who rewound your song with a pencil.”).

The show’s highlight came near the end. For the second to last song of her set, Hathaway approached the microphone and crooned the first few words of a song that sent a fresh wave of excitement through the crowd. “You get two notes off that Luther song…” she chuckled, before resetting the introduction a few times, teasing the audience by retreating to the back of the stage, taking exaggerated sips from her water bottle, and then returning to the microphone and cuing up the band, only to go into a sales pitch for her new album or an admonition to the audience not to watch the song through their phones.

On the fifth or so time, Hathaway launched into “Forever, For Always, For Love,” a soulful Luther Vandross tune about trying to win back a lost lover. Hathaway’s incredible vocal range was in full force here, and the audience cheered in approval and admiration after particularly virtuosic moments. Hathaway seemed to catch the waves of excitement from the crowd beneath her and soar above it, hands out by her sides like wings, eyes closed as she hit the high notes.

After making her way through the verses, Hathaway encouraged the audience to sing the chorus with her. “Let me hear it, Syracuse!” Nearly every one of the fans in attendance participated, intoning the refrain (“Forever, for always, for love”) along with Hathaway as the band played gently on.

Hathaway then gestured to organist Lynette Williams, who turned from her double-layered keyboards to a Hammond piano beside her. Illuminated with a yellow spotlight, Williams became possessed, her hands flying across the keys, her foot pumping the pedal in time, her eyes closed and her head turned up as the celestial notes arced through air. On a night that featured many moments of musical magic, this was the only time that the whole audience seemed to be transported to an entirely different world.

The final song in Hathaway’s set was “I Can’t Wait,” the single from her forthcoming album. It was a lively, modern tune that incorporated a lot of record scratching and other live production effects from DJ Spark. The crowd, which Hathaway had just held in the palm of her hand for the better part of twenty minutes, lost a little energy, but many members of the audience were on their feet by the time Hathaway thanked her band members and left the stage.

After some encouragement from the DJ, the crowd was able to summon Hathaway from backstage for an encore, a funky number called “Somethin’” from her self-titled debut album. Hathaway and Dennis “DC” Clark did some scat singing to close out the night, and the audience was able to relive its younger days for one more song before walking into the warm September evening.