Sundance

Common, Aloe Blacc & Erykah Badu Celebrate Nina Simone at Sundance Concert

Common
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images for Sundance

Common (R) performs at the Celebration of Music in Film event during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25, 2015 in Park City, Utah. 

The Sundance Institute pulled off the near-impossible at its annual Celebration of Music in Film concert Jan. 25 at the Park City venue the Shop. The artists assembled -- Common, Erykah Badu, Aloe Blacc and more -- evoked the soul and power of the iconoclastic Nina Simone, working her songbook with a reverence for her originality and spirit with little stylistic restraint.

Sundance 2015

Simone is no easy singer to capture or even encapsulate. She integrated jazz, classical, blues, showtunes, gospel and protest songs during a 50-year career. An outspoken Civil Rights advocate, she abandoned the United States for decades until a career revival brought her back for performances near the end of her life in 2003. Her story is the focus of Liz Garbus' What Happened, Miss Simone?, which opened the festival Jan. 22 and will reach Netflix in the spring. John Legend performed at the film's premiere.

Sundance Review: 'What Happened, Miss Simone' Details Nina Simone's Troubled Life & Legacy

For the Institute's show, Simone's former band leader, the guitarist Al Schackman, joined bassist Kate Davis' quartet to give the evening an added element of gravitas. The singers responded, whether reaching for the heavens with joy or detailing the pain of injustice.

Badu, who silenced the packed house with an a cappella version of "Feeling Good" to open the two-hour show, wound her way through verses about people of different skin color in "Peaches," shifting each verse's opening line just-so, effectively emphasizing their position in society until the song bursts with its final declaration of "I'm Peaches."

Blacc delivered an emotionally wrenching rendition of "Strange Fruit," the story of a lynching best known as a Billie Holiday classic, with simple haunting solo piano accompaniment. "I Put A Spell on You," with the band taking Simone's funkified twist on the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song, found Blacc soaring vocally to a height he generally does not reach on record. He let the band stretch out on "Sinnerman."

Common closed the evening by connecting her work with hip-hop, starting with his "Misunderstood" that liberally samples her take on "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and closing with "U, Black Maybe," rapping over Simone's "Young, Gifted & Black." Both included considerable freestyle moments that included shout-outs to everyone from Simone to Selma director Ava DuVernay and the Simone concert's co-producer Tracy McKnight.

Warner Bros. singer Andra Day, Sam Cooke-inspired soul singer Leon Bridges and Davis delivered equally riveting takes on Simone's material. Check out the full set list below.

Erykah Badu
"Feeling Good"
"Peaches"
Leon Bridges
"I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free"
Kate Davis
"I Loves You Porgy"
"Be My Husband"
"Stars"
Andra Day
"Mississippi God Damn"
Al Schackman
"Sea Lion Woman"
Aloe Blacc
"Strange Fruit"
"I Put a Spell on You"
"Sinnerman"
Common
"Misunderstood"
"U Black, Maybe"