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Singer/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello hasn’t had a hit since her 1994 cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” a duet with John Mellencamp, but she’s kept busy and maintained a devoted fanbase with various challenging, genre-spanning projects. With her “Gett Off: Meshell Ndegeocello covers Prince” tour, which arrives at the State Theatre in Falls Church tonight, she gets to be adventurous and populist at the same time.
Ndegeocello, the daughter of still-active local jazz and blues musician Jacques Johnson, grew up in the D.C. area and played with go-go bands Prophecy, Little Bennie and the Masters, and Rare Essence. While those bands are known for doing covers and she’s a longtime Prince fan, she says via e-mail that she never played his songs with those groups. “I guess it was too new to cover? Or maybe I should have,” she writes.
But she did catch him in concert. “I saw him perform in the ’80s many times,” she writes. “Seeing him come out on stage in a fringe half-shirt and his drawers and be funkier than anyone I had ever seen was maybe the most inspiring thing I’ve seen.” Ndegeocello, who said in a 2000 interview that her goal was to tour as Prince’s bass player, answered a bit cryptically when I asked if she had ever performed with him. “He’s an amazing musician, an amazing player, an unparalleled creator. He wasn’t the nicest dude to me.”
But despite that experience—-whatever it was—-Ndegecello covered Prince’s “Dirty Mind” on her 2009 tour for the album Devil’s Halo, and that inspired her to put together a Prince covers show. Ndegeocello is touring with the same band she’s played with in recent years. It features guitarist Chris Bruce, who has played with Aaron Neville, Seal, Sheryl Crow and others; drummer Deantoni Parks who has played with the Mars Volta and John Cale; and keyboardist Keith Ciancia, who has worked with Macy Gray, T-Bone Burnett, and Cassandra Wilson. “We did rehearse when we decided to put this together but it wasn’t days and days. Just a couple,” she writes. While the show will likely include “Purple Rain,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “Pop Life,” Ndegeocello says “I probably have more hidden gems than radio favorites.” At earlier gigs , that meant cuts like “Annie Christian,” “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute),” and “Lady Cabdriver.” She also does them her way—sometimes she adds more slap bass and a jam-band feel; while other times she takes a mellow and atmospheric approach.
With New York City and Paris dates set for this tour, Ndegeocello is clearly focused on his royal purple highness, but in May she took her bass to New York where she joined jazz pianist Jason Moran and his band for two nights on a specially commissioned Fats Waller program that mixed 1930s stride-piano stylings with Motown sounds, house accents, and more. But Ndegeocello still has more of her own songs in the works. “These are just fun projects, interesting collaborations, and opportunities to do different things. I am always working on original material.”
Meshell Ndegocello performs tonight at 8:30 pm at the State Theatre, 220 North Washington Street, Falls Church. (703) 237-0300. $31.