A Night of Symphonic Hip Hop featuring Nelly Pittsburgh Post Gazette Review

Sunday, July 17, 2016

July 15, 2016 5:28 PM
Nelly shakes a tailfeather with the PSO
July 14, 2016 11:54 PM

Nelly at Heinz Hall on Thursday night.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Here's the thing about Nelly, that might separate him from a lot of rappers: You could put him in front of a country band or pop-punk band or polka band or Tuvan throat singers and he would find a way to do his thing.
You could put him in a fancy theater in front of an orchestra, which is what the Pittsburgh Symphony did Thursday night at Heinz Hall in a program titled A Night of Symphonic Hip-Hop.
Whatever fears there may have been that it would intimidate the rapper or tone him down (too much) were put to rest when he came right out of the gate with “Shake Ya Tailfeather.”
The biggest rap star of '00s was backed by his six-piece band, poised in front of the PSO led by assistant conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. It was the second such concert for Nelly (following an outdoor show with the Columbus Symphony on Saturday) and our orchestra's first time supporting a major hip-hop star.
I would be lying if I said it was in any way a showcase for the PSO, which played a rather minor role in this proceedings.
The 41-year-old brought the proper respect to the stage. Early on, he made a heartfelt speech talking about how music was an outlet in troubled times and asking for people to “free your minds tonight.” “For all you classical fans stepping out tonight," he added, "if I do anything improper, excuse me.” As it turned out, he cursed less than Randy Newman — in fact, he didn’t curse at all -— and everybody kept their clothes on.
On the improbability of this pairing, he said of his style of music, "Some of these musicians are probably telling their kids to turn it off -- they never thought they'd be up here playing it tonight."
That might be true, but my takeaway image from the concert might be PSO bassist Micah Howard excitedly mouthing the words to "Ride Wit Me" and shouting out the chorus "Hey, must be the money!" every time it came around. (“That was me. Love Nelly!,” he said in an email after the concert.)
Nelly did a hooked-filled 75-minute, 15-song set sometimes just using his band. The symphony was window dressing on on some of the more rap-heavy songs like "E.I." and "Air Force Ones," but brought some deep cello textures to "Country Grammar" and dark tension to "Grillz." Yes, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was playing "Grillz."
Nelly won't be confused with Marvin or Luther, but he can hold his own on a smooth R&B tune as he showed on "My Place" (his granny's favorite) and "The Fix" which samples "Sexual Healing" ("My father's like ‘that's my jam," he said). He kept in the family, bringing out his younger brother Lavell Webb a few times as a lively hype man.
Nelly also sang on a pair of country-related songs: a cover of Thomas Rhett's "Die a Happy Man" and the melodic 2004 hit "Over and Over" (originally done with Tim McGraw). On a song like that, you waited for a moment where the rapper and the band would drop out and let the orchestra swell, but, unfortunately, that will have to be something they work on with these arrangements.
Throughout the show, you could tell people wanted to burst out of their plush seats and they finally got their chance on the party anthem "Hot in Herre," Nelly saying it was time to "break the etiquette" and ask people to get up and dance.
He kept the hall rocking with "Dilemma" and sealed the deal with a rousing "Just A Dream," creating a joyous scene with the line "If you ever loved somebody, put your hands up!"
Nelly, who has a great spirit, was all love for Pittsburgh ("This was one of the first cities to start playing 'Country Grammar' for Nelly"), for "my homie" Wiz Khalifa (" 'Black and Yellow,' that be my jam, and not just because it's my high school colors") and for his hosts for the night ("Truly an honor, I can't say that enough").
And yeah, he's no Yo Yo Ma or Emanuel Ax, but the Symphony should feel a little honored, too.
Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg

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