We parked in the YMCA down below and walked up the hill — gnarly with slow-moving cars but bereft of foot traffic — to see Vanessa Ferguson play in the hillside amphitheater at Barber Park, a spot that on that afternoon seemed built expressly for this purpose.
It was my wife who first pointed Ferguson out to me years ago, though I’d like to think I would have spotted her eventually on my own. She sang backup that night at Churchill’s, behind Jeremy Johnson, an R&B dynamo who graced downtown Greensboro’s stages in the days when people still called it the Medaloni District.
“You should interview her,” my wife said. And so I did.
It was November 2006, and Ferguson, then a sophomore at NC A&T University, played a role in SolcetFre, the project put together by Johnson and William Trice. But she also gigged that year with the Collective at Renaissance Jazz Café over on Greene Street, held a featured role in A&T’s Black Nativity and won the school’s Omega Idol competition with her version of “Never Gonna Let You Go.”
Now here she was, back from her stint on “The Voice” with a short set for the hometown crowd stacked with the people who knew her long before Alicia Keyes ever did.
I don’t know if the crowd appreciated the quick joint by Ferguson’s fiancé Ken Fuller, aka Mr. Rozzi, with longtime collaborators Ed E. Ruger and Ty Bru, as a rare shot from the old Iconoclast Crew, or the connection with the other performers, R’mone Entonio and Nishah Dimeo, that runs through every iteration of Boston’s House of Jazz.
But I know they had a good time, because we all did.
I like Vanessa when she spins out torch songs like glowing, flowing lava, when she adds subtle phrasing and texture to a line in a way no one else can. I like it when she plays bass. And I like it when she gets political.
Here she was, back from her stint on “The Voice” with a short set for the hometown crowd stacked with the people who knew her long before Alicia Keyes ever did.
Two songs in she busted out an original piece, “Cries to the Heavens,” a lament with soaring vocals, spoken word and rap, dedicated to the women behind the young black men being slaughtered on our nation’s streets. By the end of it, she was in tears.