Late in 1961 Nina Simone stepped onto the stage at the Village Gate in New York City and blew the roof off the place with one of the finest live shows ever captured on record. In many respects however it would be narrow to simply say that this was just a great performance delivered by an earth shatteringly brilliant talent, which it most certainly was, but it was also so much more important than that. Simone’s ‘At the Village Gate’ could be seen in this writer’s opinion as the beginning of a new world, the meeting point for the 1950’s and 60’s where the dry conservatism of a past decade all melted away in a sweaty, dark bar in New York City under the guidance and raw bones approach of arguably the finest female vocalist in history.
The rawness of the recording is perhaps the most striking thing about it. As Simone stamps her unique brand on tracks like folk traditional ‘House of The Rising Sun’, we hear the sound engineer bump one of the microphones, we hear drinks being served at the bar and New Yorkers chattering quietly. However rather than relegating this to a second rate live recording what these factors serve to do is fill the record with an incredible atmosphere that places the listener in the room as the audience falls almost completely silent during slower numbers like ‘He Was Too Good To Me’ and ‘Brown Baby’, and as they move along to ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and ‘Children Go Where I Send You’. What the primitive nature of this recording also achieves is to present a young Nina Simone in her most real and free flowing state yet and this is perhaps most apparent in the way that her flawless vocal along with her innovative and dynamic piano playing shine through as effortless and unrivalled abilities without any need for recording studio gloss or trickery.
To sum up the greatness of this album between the pseudo jazz flourishes of ‘Just In Time’, the African rhythms of ‘Zungo’, and the reimagined folk of ‘House of The Rising Sun’, there comes the track ‘Brown Baby’. There’s a feeling behind ‘Brown Baby’ that makes you close your eyes and picture a crying Don Draper type figure sitting near the back of the room watching this beautiful Black woman tear her heart out on stage in such a visceral and true way the likes of which he has never seen. He’s having a revelation. He’s realizing that there was nothing for his soul in the pop gleam of the 1950’s and that this is where it’s at. The reality with everything else stripped away is where it’s at. The glasses clink, the smoke fills the room and Draper is born all over again as a child of the revolution.Posted: January 2, 2012