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When Solange sings, you listen at ACL Fest

Eric Webb

There was so much to see, and there was so much to hear.

I saw a young woman at the front of barrier to the Barton Springs stage Friday, wearing a dress shirt tied around her waist, with the words “Black Girl Magic” painted on the side facing out to the world. I saw another woman catch an airborne beach ball, which someone else had launched into the crowd, and quickly pull it to the ground. Another woman near her nodded in wordless assent. I heard a woman behind me say, ” Which half of the elevator do you really want to win?” (Jay-Z, Solange’s brother law, would headline Austin City Limits Music Festival in an hour. We all know about the elevator.)

About 15 minutes late, Solange’s red-clad band came onstage, a white pyramid to one side, two white pillars to the other. They played the singer on. The sun went down, and Solange came out to rapture, a giant red circle at her back.

Seeing Solange perform with her band is seeing mercury ebb and flow. Their fluid movements always maintain balance: lean for lean, push for pull, step up for step back. There’s grace in the reciprocity.

“I’m weary of the ways of the world,” Solange sang. The singer’s voice is light and clean on recordings; its power is startling live. She digs into soulful runs. A man shouted, “Sis, you better say it.”

Solange said it. She told the microphone how she tried to drink it, dance it, work it, sleep it, sex it, read it, run it, write it, cry it away. “Cranes In the Sky” made the woman who caught the beach ball dab at her eyes with a triangle of tissue folded until it was fat. There’s a final note at the end of the recorded version of the song that’s piercing in its height. Solange hit it live, and people couldn’t seem to believe their ears.

At one point, a primal scream bled into “Mad.” Solange explained that she’s not allowed to be mad. She pointed out to some spots in the audience and said they  were allowed to be mad. On “F.U.B.U.,” Solange came down to the front of the stage and grasped the hand of an emotional woman in the front row who sang every word back to her: “This s**t is for us/Sometimes we don’t trust/This s**t is for us.”

“From the front to the back,” Solange said a few songs later before “Losing You. “Let’s ****ing dance.” From there, the intensity of Solange’s motion burned hotter as the set reached the end. Her body became explosive as she worked through “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Braids and wispy fabric suspended themselves in air and red light. Solange began conducting her band with her entire body, her back to the park. A jump equaled a crescendo.

Eventually, Solange joined her backup singers in the same trio formation they began the show in. She ran in place, joyfully and frantically, and ended on the ground, still running with her legs in the air.

Most of what Solange sang came from “A Seat at the Table,” her 2016 meditation on being a black woman in America. It’s poetry with a heartbeat that pulses in sync with the political and social moment we find ourselves in. It’s one of my favorite albums. But whether listening in my headphones or listening in front of a stage, I’m not sitting where Solange sits. I never will, but so many at ACL on Friday night did, and do every day.