Last week, record producer and multi-talented artist Ryan Leslie came to Amsterdam to promote his latest album Black Mozart. His first two albums, released back in 2009, had been commercial busts and I had heard from friends within the music industry that ‘he wasn’t a great performer.’ Understandably, my expectations of the 35 year old artist were low. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by the self-proclaimed ‘Black Mozart’.
Amsterdam’s ‘Melkweg’ provided the perfect venue. The intimate arena was filled to the brim and the DJ was warming up the audience with some upbeat R&B tracks. There were a lot of good looking ladies in the audience – Ryan Leslie must be doing something right. Suddenly, the DJ stopped and a large projection of Leslie’s Black Mozart promo documentary appeared on stage. His band, consisting of two electric guitarists and a drummer dressed in all black, took up their respective positions. But where was Ryan? The impatient crowd started to chant ‘Black Mozart’ over and over again until he finally surfaced. ‘Black Mozart’ himself entered the foreground, wearing all black, covered in gold plated accessories. With black wave-farers hiding his face, he started interacting with his elated fans, shouting ‘who you rocking with?’ and moved swiftly into the very catchy, but repetitive anthem ‘Black Mozart’.
Finding silence, he proceeded to sit down at the piano on stage. He then took out a black and gold bandana and emphatically tied it around his face. He played what was presumably a Mozart inspired symphony. While, I admired the enthusiasm and the elicited common motif, I couldn’t help question whether Mozart would have actually played on such a small piano. Unveiling the bandana and enjoying the array of cheers, Ryan performed ‘Black Mozart’ for the second time. This turned out to be a commonality of the evening, whereby he would really draw out each song. If you didn’t know his lyrics beforehand, you would definitely know them by the end of the night.
Songs like ’Just Right’, ‘Five Minute Freshen Up’ and ‘I Love it’ were really brought to life by enthusiastic electric guitar solos and euphoric flashing light displays. Leslie utilised the peaks and troughs of each song by moving from slow romantic interludes on the synth keyboard piano to jumping around stage to rattling heavy bass. ‘Only the Lonely,’ featuring the recorded vocals of Courtney Bennett, were great for all the couples in the audience. Half way through the performance, he pulled out his phone and sang ‘put your lighters in the sky for love’. This was followed by a cheesy, yet endearing cover of ‘Hallelujah’ on the piano.
One of Ryan Leslie’s core strengths was his fan interaction. Besides calling out his family and flirting with members of the audience, ‘Black Mozart’ did something I had never seen done before. He told everyone to ‘get out their phones.’ The slightly bemused audience quickly obliged, thrusting their phones into the air. He used the experience with his former protégé Cassie, as he had helped produce her song ‘Me & You.’ Leslie explained the importance of social media and how MySpace made her famous. I was expecting him to get everyone to tweet or follow him and display them on the projector. Instead, he gave out his personal phone number +19156006978. Any Ryan Leslie fans who missed the performance, feel free to drop him a message. While this may seem weird, there is method to the madness; he explained that he gets bored spending hours on the tour bus and likes to read texts and suggestions from his fans. Building on this sense of unity, he quickly performed the chorus of ‘We Fly Together.’
I was lucky enough to have a great view from up in the VIP gallery with his family and friends. As he neared the end of his rendition, Ryan introduced and congratulated his band. However, he changed things up by switching roles with his drummer. The friendly looking drummer took centre stage and surprised everyone with his beautiful voice. This was followed by two electrifying guitar solos. For me, his band really deserved credit; they were amazing and although it was lyrically poor, the music was actually engaging and enjoyable. Despite not playing the one song that I wanted to hear, ‘Green’ featuring Fabulous, he did display a degree of versatility with a closing freestyle: ‘I came to Amsterdam and Rocked the show’.
I saw Frank Ocean live over the summer in London. He is a phenomenal artist but a poor performer. Ryan Leslie, however, is a poor artist, but a truly engaging and lovable performer. Although he started a few of his own chants, his stage presence was infectiously charming. The mood was warm and positive enough that even sceptics will find themselves dancing and singing along with everyone else.
Pictures: Bridie Rollins