She’s a force of nature, Crystal Shawanda, and she seemed to be in her natural habitat on the stage of Toronto’s “Hugh’s Room” belting out – with a tasteful nuance – the blues. The Canadian singer may reside in Nashville, but her casting as a country artist, whitewashed as the genre demands, is hopefully over. “Love me when my roots are showing” was one of the taglines on Crystal’s 2008 debut, and now these roots have finally tied her firmly to the music Shawanda is most comfortable with; that’s why, on the night, she didn’t delve into her first two albums opting instead for the latest one as a springboard for choice perennials and previously unheard compositions.
“Irresistible” would be a fitting description for Crystal’s performance, something she stressed in the cover of “What You Gonna Do About Me” – the second cut on offer, preceding Shawanda’s own, arguably her best to date, number, “The Whole Worlds Got The Blues” – so if some of her selections looked quite obvious, the singer easily and elegantly inhabited such well-trodden tracks as “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” while leaving a few surprises up her imaginary sleeve. Crystal’s fathoming of desperation might be all over “Skin Deep” – a lead single from her forthcoming record, still in the making – but Shawanda’s ability to soothe the suffering led her to the delivery of “I Play The Blues For You” from Albert King’s lore, whereas “Trouble” that’s also yet to see the light of day landed on a rockabilly nerve which perfectly captured the mood of the night.
For all the blue bent of her repertoire, Crystal served fun in spades – infused with sincerity throughout, what with her remark on the eyeliner woes she experiences when sweating like Tina Turner and James Brown, just two blueprints of Shawanda’s style – and it’s not only her string-bending husband Dewayne Strobel who was at the receiving end of the lady’s charm. The audience, weirdly reserved for this kind of vigor, couldn’t help but be moved even by the country inflections of another fresh piece, “Lay Back,” because it’s impossible not to get transported to the world of lava-like emotions with Crystal’s living it all on-stage. It got even hotter with her renditions of Mavis Staples’ “I’ll Take You There” or Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle” whose refrain of “all night long” would be ringing in the audience’s ears long after the artist finished chatting with the last of her old and new admirers, including this scribe’s 9-year-old kid.
So even though Shawanda’s new blues “When You Rise” is addressed to somebody else, it’s actually her star that’s still ascending. One more step up, and the world will be at Crystal’s dancing feet.