"I'll take that applause," she told the assembled masses—as if there were any doubt. She received half a dozen or so standing ovations throughout the night, some of which she demanded, all of which were given to her because she still sings right into the very depths of your marrow, and because you got the feeling that if you looked at her wrong she'd turn you into a pillar of salt. And you'd deserve it.
The word diva gets tossed around these days, signifying nothing more in the public's imagination than a person who wears rhinestone halter tops and is proud of it. But if any one of the flimsy little hand towels currently enjoying this fraudulent mantle—Britney Spears or, please, Christina Aguilera—ever tried to take her stage, Nina Simone would wipe her forehead with them. The legendary vocalist is an uncompromisingly outspoken black woman, and her show last week at Benaroya Hall was a reminder of what it means to experience something by a performer who has actually experienced something.
Simone is nearing 70 now, and it's clearly more difficult for her to move, but she moved. She spoke like royalty—words were measured, dipped in dry ice, and then parceled out. Her defiant snap hasn't gone; when a male fan hollered out a song request, she replied, "Men are always tellin' me what to do. And you don't know nuthin'."
Her matchless covers turned enduring standards into wider, larger credos: "Here Comes the Sun," done as a fairly transporting sing-along, felt like what, as a kid, you'd always hoped church would be like but never was; "Just Like a Woman" became a triumphant confessional ("But I don't break/No, I don't break like I used to/'Cause I'm NOT a little girl"); and her take on Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" was accompanied by an anti-George W. Bush rant demanding that we "go and do something about that man!"
Anyone hoping for an incident got a tiny fix. An unfortunate usher had been required to sit in a chair just in front of the stage, facing the audience, in case there were any offerings of bouquets and the like. Simone had obviously not been informed, and momentarily distracted by the blond head, waddled over and bopped the usher's cranium before handlers came out to supply an explanation. ("It sucked," Devony, the bopped one, laughed after the show, saying that it was no tiny thwack.).
The evening's most important lesson: Never turn your back on Nina Simone.