The upstairs at Bourbon and Branch in Northern Liberties is an unassuming yet carefully-crafted intimate music room, one of many in a city whose quality venues are often the least visible. And on May 22, this room showed its flexibility by hosting an eclectic, though somehow not odd, evening of music. The small crowd was treated to folk, rap, poetry, country, hip-hop, R&B, soul and jazz. No, it wasn’t a music festival. It was Priscilla Renea and the duo of Kuf Knotz and Christine Elise. And though the crowd be small, the sound and power be mighty.
Kuf Knotz is a local legend, stretching the boundaries of hip-hop and rap for about two decades. His latest project pairs him with harpist/guitarist/vocalist Christine Elise. There were no other instruments or loops; just Elise’s sparse compositions supporting her incisive and commanding voice with Knotz interloping rhymes that evoked spoken word poetry. What was remarkable about the pair, though, was the immersive positivity that flowed through each song. Even the tribute to Knotz’s brother, who was taken too soon two years ago, felt meditative and optimistic.
After Knotz and Elise cleared the stage, rapper Tiz warmed up the audience with some classic hip hop sounds backed by DJ Mist. Priscilla Renea was observing from a set of stairs at house left, unnoticed by those in attendance. After one song, Tiz invited her on stage to perform a couple of her tunes together, staying in the vein of pop/rap. And unless you were already familiar with Renea’s latest singles, you might not have been prepared for what was going to happen next.
Priscilla Renea moved from Vero Beach, FL to Hollywood in hopes, of course, of making it big. She released a dance-pop album, Jukebox, in 2009, but found success co-writing for artists such as Mary J. Blige, Fifth Harmony and Rihanna. Her most recognizable credit is on “Timber,” the Pitbull/Kesha hit. More on that later. Her real love, her true calling, though, lies in the country genre, and she had opportunities to write for and with Miranda Lambert, ZZ Ward and Train.
Renea introduced herself immediately as a country artist. Tiz relinquished the stage, leaving DJ Mist, herself and guitarist John Prentice. The first song, she told us, was a hoedown, and indeed it was. And wasn’t. There was stomping, which was done gleefully in glittery silver boots, but there was also soulfulness that made you want to pay attention. Wearing ripped black jeans, a black satin button-down blouse with an Ozzy Osborne logo on the back and large gold-framed violet-tinted glasses, her presentation was deliberately casual but not careless or sloppy, which is a fancy way of saying: Priscilla Renea is cool as fuck.
With the second song, she got real with us and gave us some important love advice, which was fully explained in the bluesy “Gentle Hands,” followed by the gospel “Heavenly.” She explained to us that her songs were based on true stories, and told us about remodeling her house with her husband in “Build a House.” Here, it was only Renea and Prentice performing low and slow, as she displayed the bottom end of her range. She shared that in Hollywood, she was devastated by the vapid soullessness that engulfed her, and she descended into addiction. She overcame, though, and wrote “High and Dry” to commemorate her recovery, which includes the refrain, “when it rained, I poured.”
Renea strung her songs together in a logical fashion, not only musically but narratively. Her performance of “Timber” was as she meant for it to be: a slow, sultry (punctuated by an unbuttoning of the aforementioned blouse) 6/8 rendition, implying that her slide in Hollywood was due in part to the lack of artistic control she experienced.
All of these songs were more or less, as promised, country-esque, though one could argue that some veered more in the direction of soul or gospel in their arrangements and delivery. However, the light ballad “Lifetime” and the clever and name-dropping “Millennials,” in which we celebrated Rugrats, *NSYNC and Game Boys, were definitely more suited for the WXTU listener.
“Family Tree,” her first single from her upcoming release Coloured, was perhaps the most emotionally draining of all of Renea’s songs. The title is deceptive: it’s not about a loving, deeply rooted and supportive family. Rather, it describes how she was kicked out at 17 and had to fend for herself, and become the “roots and the fruits and the branches of [her] family tree.” Toward the end of the song, her voice betrayed her mortality as it cracked in the softer moments, but that only added to the authenticity of the performance.
She waxed political as she introduced “Land of the Free,” a song ostensibly intended for a specific audience, as she unapologetically described what it’s like to be “living while Black in the land of the free,” and warned that “if you don’t believe it’s true, I guess I wrote this song for you.” Many, many props go to guitarist John Prentice who, towards the end of the song, soloed the entire “Star Spangled Banner” with a country-blues-jazz twist, making it perhaps the most American rendition of our national anthem ever performed.
Renea closed with a feel-good love song, “Denim,” inviting everyone to stick around for pictures and love and conversation. The small crowd obliged, every one of them a convert by this point. “The next time I come,” she said, “you won’t be able to breathe in here.” From your lips to God’s ears, Priscilla Renea.