So it was disappointing that the concert fell short, mostly because of the venue. Of course you want to hold a concert like this outside (which they did, in Restoration Plaza on Fulton Street), and make admission free, in order to appeal to skeptical locals. But at the same time, the sound was often lost to the ether, or drowned out by ambient chatter, and the large crowd spilled over awkwardly into the area surrounding the limited seating. Interesting or challenging works, like the Marz piece or the first part of Derek Bermel's bluesy and jazzy Migration Series, were difficult to engage with; the best pieces of the night were short, loud, and fast. As such, Bey's set was too ambitious, though his rendition of David Herman's "Something Spiritual," with its repetitions and accelerating-decelerating rhythms, and Waka Flocka Flame's hard-hitting "Paintball" were highlights.
Better was Leslie Uggams's tribute to Lena Horne, for which Pierson handed off the baton to Linda Twine. Performing four songs that the Bed-Stuy native made famous, Uggams tore it up, belting through "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Stormy Weather." The Phil proved itself a bitching backing bad, both cooking and smooth as necessary; you were almost moved to say it's missed its calling. In contrast, Mos Def's set had a subdued energy, pitched closer to concert-hall reverence than hip-hop hootenanny. He admitted more than once to being nervous. "I grew up here; this is crazy," he told the crowd. "Some of you are related to people who used to try to beat me up!" He ended the evening by jumping onto the piano and pounding out a few bars.
As I left, I discovered the concert had been broadcast live on a big screen just around the plaza's bend, where a large crowd sat comfortably, soaking in a rich mix piped in through speakers. With such clear sound and image, it might have been possible here to wrestle with the provocative program, whose hodgepodge quality reflected well the disparate styles that have grown out of both the neighborhood and the borough. If only I'd known.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart