Tamia Celebrates 20-Year Career at New York's Irving Plaza: Live Review

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The R&B conversation is often narrowly focused on a small group of artists -- youthful ones with newly minted hits. But one of this year's most exciting R&B songs, Tamia's "Sandwich and a Soda," came from outside that small golden circle. Tamia's show at Irving Plaza in New York on Thursday night (Aug. 20) promoted her latest album, Love Life, and served as a testament to her tenacity and durability.

Tamia: 'R&B Doesn't Get as Much Support as Other Genres Now'

Tamia's been in the music business for two decades. That's a remarkable accomplishment for any artist, but it's even more impressive for a female singer. Aaliyah famously claimed "age ain't nothing but a number," a sweet sentiment, but not a truthful one: women in R&B mostly get attention if they are young -- or Beyoncé.

In the past, Tamia has also been accused of being out of touch with modern romance by enacting conservative gender roles -- being passive and overly dependent on the males in her life. One of her early hits, "So Into You," was about losing herself in her partner, and that's been a consistent theme in her work. "Last First Kiss," from 2006, is as strong an endorsement of conventional marriage as you're likely to find outside of Disney. Many of the songs on Love Life contain variations on the line, "You need to understand that I'd do anything for my man."

But Tamia is not just about standing by her man; she's also interested in satisfying her own needs. Her records explore love and lust, a bold move in a world that mostly frowns on the free expression of female sexual desire, especially from women over the age of 30.

Tamia Scores Her Highest-Charting Album Ever With 'Love Life'

Playing at Irving Plaza in New York, one of the songs that elicited the most visceral response from the crowd was "Me," a self-love, men-be-damned anthem that incited an entire room to synchronized movement. "You asked if it's another man; I said 'no,'" Tamia sang. "You laughed and say, 'is it a woman?' I say, 'yes.' Surprisingly you ask me for honey's name -- and her name is me." She added dramatic pauses before answering each of her lover's questions, building suspense and riling up the audience even though everyone knew every word.

"Me" appeared on Between Friends in 2006, and it was one of several older tracks the singer sprinkled into her set. The show opened with an extended medley that included "Imagination," (1998), "So Into You" (1998) and "Questions" (2004). Later came "Almost," a piano ballad about missed opportunities from 2006 reminiscent of Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together" and "Officially Missing You," which first appeared as a liquid bossa-inflected number in 2003. Both regretful oldies were catnip for the crowd.

Tamia worked with lean accompaniment: a drummer who did yeoman's work throughout the show, a keyboard player, and two backup singers -- gifted harmonizers who fell easily into step with the boss's dance moves. Tamia doesn't need much help. She doesn't sing in the breathy, Janet Jackson-indebted style that's currently in fashion, nor does she employ the overly-melismatic approach common on TV singing shows. Instead she's direct and her voice remains commanding, honeyed and slightly husky.

New material appeared mostly during the second half of the set, giving the singer a chance to erupt. For "Love Falls Over Me," the drum tone was set to Prince circa 1982, and Tamia hurled her voice through the track's clean, crisp spaces. "Stuck With Me," full of brutal rim-shots and lavish harmonies, benefitted from smart choreography: she sang while enveloped in a cloud of smoke and caught by four lights, a shining beacon of loneliness.

There's no loneliness in "Sandwich and a Soda," a panther-like slice of trap-funk that served as Love Life's first single. On stage, Tamia fell into finger-snapping formation with her backup singers, blending modern poise with classic power, rambunctious swagger -- "You had okay, let me give you better" -- with plenty of playfulness. Unsurprisingly, "Sandwich and a Soda" stalled at radio, but for Tamia, longevity offers its own rewards: she made one of the strongest songs of her career 20 years after she started.

Tamia - Live At Irving Plaza Album Review