If you happened to be in a particularly mellow mood during Sheila E.’s rather excellent show at Canalside on Thursday, perhaps you got a bit more up when Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown strolled onto the stage, extolled the virtues of the woman her mother knows as Sheila Escovedo, and then declared Thursday, July 31st, 2014, to be “Sheila E. Day in Buffalo.” I didn’t see that happen at Kerffufle last week. Just sayin’.
The woman most of the world knows as a protege of Prince is actually not who you think she is. Yes, she’s had hits that marry R&B with funk and pure pop, “The Glamorous Life” being the biggest and most ubiquitous of these. But Sheila E. is also the daughter of revered Latin percussionist Pete Escovedo, and the niece of former Santana conguero Coke Escovedo. She’s been playing percussion on stage since age 5, and has been a professional musician since she turned 17.
On Thursday, Sheila split the difference between her more “musicianly” music – Latin jazz, straight jazz, funk, and deeply-indebted-to-the-70s R&B – and the overtly Minneapolis-in-the-80s funk-pop that brought her the greatest commercial success. That seemed to suit the large, but not overwhelmingly massive, Canalside crowd on Thursday. Though she has spent much of her time behind a drum set over the past decade, for her Canalside show, Sheila stuck primarily to the hits, or new songs from her most recent effort, “Icon,” that fit snugly into the modern R&B groove.
It was a smooth-flowing, highly danceable set. But it also felt a bit stilted, as if Sheila felt she owed the audience at this outdoor, free-admission show a tour through her most popular music, rather than a full immersion in her musical brilliance. That brilliance involves some serious Latin jazz and danceable funk. We got some of that. But the show would’ve been better if we got some more of that.
Backed by a stellar band able to navigate the waters separating jazz from R&B and funk without breaking a sweat, Sheila made plain her fondness for the “Icon” material by playing a bunch of it. That wasn’t a problem, for it found the erstwhile percussionist out in front, microphone in hand, working the crowd, and singing with both strength and eloquence. An early “Lovely Day” found our star playing bass and delivering emotive vocals on a new tune that echoed the glory days of late-70s smooth soul. (Yes, she’s a great bass player, too.)
It’s not surprising that the most visceral crowd response came when Sheila and the band performed hits associated with her Prince tenure. Serious 80s funk – which is basically 70s funk, with less cool keyboard sounds – informed much of the “Icon” material, as well as the direct nods to the Prince catalog that appeared during some brief but stellar improvisational jams.
Of her newer material, Sheila’s most powerful material came in the form of an “Icon” tune known as “Mona Lisa”. On this chart, Sheila and the band dug deep into their Latin Jazz roots, and delivered a serious barn-burner, replete with the star manning her timbale drums at center stage. This was the musical high point of the show, but it was a late-in-the-set take on “Glamorous Life,” Sheila’s biggest hit, that brought the most impassioned response from the crowd.