Meklit Hadero has a presence most singers only dream of. From the minute she takes the stage — in a casual black jumpsuit, with bare feet and a radiant smile — she exudes warmth, ease and authenticity.
And then she opens her mouth.
If you had any doubt that this first artist in the Ringling's NowHERE contemporary performance series was the real deal, it will disappear when she starts to sing. Whether a breathy high-range whisper, a playful trill or a deep-from-the-diaphragm rumble, her tone has a purity and her presentation an unaffectedness that makes you feel as if she's singing just for you.
Returning to Sarasota for the first time since her 2012 Ringling International Arts Festival appearance, the Ethiopian-born cabaret singer gracefully sailed through a dozen-plus songs during an hour-long set, backed by two new band members (Sam Bevan on bass and Lorca Hart on drums) and one who was here before (Darren Johnston on trumpet). Many of the songs were from her second album, "We Are Alive," due to be released in March.
"Its theme is simple," said Hadero, introducing the title track. "As hard as it gets, and as sweet as it gets...we are alive."
That kind of uncomplicated joy was sprinkled throughout, from her casual welcome — "Hello friends" — to the brief ad-libbed transitions between songs. Her vocals seemed just as spontaneous and effortless.
Hadero echoes the gifts of many others — from Joni Mitchell to Nina Simone, Billy Holliday to Norah Jones — but is hardly imitative. Her style is a mix of folk, jazz and ethnic music, with something intangible thrown in for good measure.
On about half the pieces she played acoustic guitar, but when her hands and body were free she was constantly in motion, swaying, twitching, and bopping as if the music were bubbling up from her very core and of necessity had to find a way out. Occasionally she introduced a song, usually without giving its title and generally revealing just enough to further the enigma of her inspiration.
"This song came to me fully formed when I was on the banks of the Nile with 18 other musicians...it's about Brooklyn," was one. Or, "The next tune is dedicated to all of you who love rooftops."
Hadero sang mostly her own compositions and her lyrics reflect her peripatetic background (she lived in two countries and a dozen cities during her growing up years). She made only one reference to the nonprofit she co-founded two years ago to use music as a vehicle for cultural, environmental and ecological exchange between Nile River communities (the Nile Project), but she did sing two songs in Amharic, her native language. To my mind, they were the most distinctive of the evening.
Which leads to my only quibble: So mellow and even-toned was the song selection and the energy level that, even within an hour, a certain uniformity emerged. I kept wanting her to belt one out or sing something radically different, just because I knew she could.
I also wished I wasn't sitting in the refined surroundings of the Historic Asolo Theater, but rather at a beachside tiki bar or in a dimly-lit cabaret. Hadero is great at removing the fourth wall, but her music and her persona beg for a more intimate setting.
She gave her bandmates plenty of opportunity for showcase solos and you couldn't help but agree when she said, "I love this band so much." All three were remarkable, but Bevan, who scatted softly while thumping on the bass, and Johnston, who extracted the widest range of sounds from a trumpet I've ever heard, were exceptional.
Hadero was a promising start to this year's contemporary stage series. I look forward to the next entry, Lostwax Multimedia Dance, in February.
MEKLIT HADERO, Ringling NowHERE New Stages contemporary performance series at the Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Rd. Reviewed Jan. 23; additional performance 7:30 p.m. tonight. $25-30. 359-5700; www.ringling.org/nowhere