Last summer, Natalie Prass released The Future and the Past, a record replete with grooves that somehow fuses all of the old sounds on which my mother raised me — R&B, soul, a touch of funk — and makes it feel modern, current. She took those grooves to a show at the Rock and Roll Hotel recently.
The Future and the Past represents only her second full-album release, following her 2015 debut (although actually recorded in 2012), both on Spacebomb, an independent record label and studio based in Richmond. Spacebomb is renowned for its house band and cast of additional players — and they’re real good — but it all pales in comparison to Natalie’s ability to create songs that transcend time. Her debut featured songs anyone could imagine spilling from an 8-track as easily as a smartphone.
Listen to The Future and the Past on Spotify:
When Natalie released The Future and the Past, she said she’d written two other albums before recording it, scrapping both of them (one in the wake of and in response to President Donald Trump’s election). Which is a way of saying it’s not actually the follow-up to her debut; this informs the immediately obvious sonic transformation that occurred between the two releases. But that response, that time, was also reflected in the content of the album. Press does not maintain neutrality, tackling a host of important topics.
The Future and the Past translated beautifully to the live setting at Rock and Roll Hotel on April 19. It was Good Friday in the city, but you wouldn’t have known it; the lights red and the floor sticky with sweat and beer by the end of the night, everyone dancing away the stone. Natalie and her band walked onstage, all wearing the same royal blue color as the album cover, like that blueberry girl from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The show began with “Oh My,” the opener from The Future and the Past, a song about the response to the election, capturing the heartbreak and disbelief of those first few months (and sometimes, still today). She followed it with the armageddon love song, “The Fire,” its shimmery qualities bursting with life.
Throughout the show, Natalie talked often about place, including her hometown of Virginia Beach and the other two places she’s lived the longest, Nashville (to which she’s recently returned) and Richmond (where she’s recorded each of her albums). When she mentioned Virginia Beach, a man in the audience yelled out, “Go Cox!,” eliciting a surprised laugh, and then story about participating in the Cox beauty pageant to become the Cox beauty queen — which she hated — only to quit when her band got a gig. She mentioned, however, that Richmond is her truest home, even though she lives in Nashville now. And she told the crowd that DC needs an excuse to dance.
A highlight of the night included “Hot for the Mountain,” a genuine protest song advocating for people to stay focused, stay positive, with the refrain, “Oh we can take you all, hey / We’ll take you on” at the ending acting as a kind of little anthem.
In the middle of the set, Natalie had the band leave the stage while she sang the impossibly beautiful and aching “Far from You” about Karen Carpenter. It’s a tribute to her as a woman, someone pushed out from behind the drums to become a singer, followed by body shaming, anorexia, her death. She invited two of her bandmates out for “Christy” then, introducing the song with a story about how she’d never really listened to any country but Shania Twain until she moved to Nashville, discovering one of the wonders of the world in Dolly Parton. Natalie said “Christy” is her “Jolene,” backing it up seconds later. She ended the set with a run of the joyful, ’80s-bright “Never Too Late” (written with Steve Lindsey and one of the best earworms), “Why Don’t You Believe In Me,” and the set-closer, firesetting “Short Court Style.”
She never exactly walked off the stage for the encore, leaning over its edge to look into the hallway and call back the guitarist. She cracked that the next song was the one that led to a comparison to a Disney princess, eliciting a yip of joy and hands in the air from a nearby fan. She laughed, and then sang, “It Is You,” a fantasy-escape tune, a lighthearted ending to the show.
Ever gracious, Natalie came out to meet her fans after the show, running her own merch table, listening to everyone, and altogether spreading light and joy.
Which is what she does better than most. She offers joy, escape, and humanity.
Here are some more photos from the show by Natalie Prass on April 19, 2019, courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.