Greater than the sum of its parts

by Jordan Green

William Trice is a bulwark – quiet and self-possessed, more orchestrator than artist, at least until he gets onstage. He’s a counterweight to the effervescent Jeremy Johnson, a charismatic vocalist if there ever was one.

The founder of the Solcetfre Project wants to make sure everyone’s present in the basement of the Greene Street club before the interview questions come. He advises vocalist Leticia “Boogie B.” Bowler against taking water onstage – counsel she ultimately rejects. He reviews the set list with Johnson. He runs upstairs to see that a friend who was supposed to be on the guest list gets in. All business. Presently, Trice returns. Vanessa “Nessa Nu” Ferguson appears. She’s undoubtedly the most sarcastic member of the group, and maybe the most commanding; her vocals are delivered with an almost tortured purity.

Onstage and off Trice makes a point of calling attention to the unique abilities and styles of the four vocalists. The collectivity, the pooling of resources among all four vocalists, the pushing of stylistic boundaries in this neo-soul unit – all of these are binding forces.

“I was in a band, a really good band,” Trice says. “We didn’t do a lot of originals. I wanted the chance to do some of my originals. I don’t just want to do my originals. I want to do everybody’s originals because then you already have a pretty good repertoire.”

They’re releasing their first CD, entitled Fel Fre, tonight, and headlining a polyglot bill that encompasses a stylistic range from hip hop and R&B to psychedelic funk and hard-edged emo. Between their triumphal Fourth of July concert in Greensboro and now, they’ve played a handful of weddings and the odd festival, and weathered some instability in their instrumental section. They’re going to pick their audience – a fan-base with growing loyalty – up and take them to ecstatic heights tonight.

One of the first people Trice, then a vocal instructor at NC A&T University, drafted was his student, Ferguson. He also recruited Bowler and another vocalist, Lakise Long. Bowler went to Africa for a time and Johnson came in to replace her. Then Long left and Bowler returned.

One of the seminal moments in Trice’s preparation for Solcetfre was trying out for “American Idol” in southern California in the fall of 2005. He didn’t win, but he placed within the top 60 out of about 77,000 contestants nationwide.

“It made me realize I was comfortable being behind the scenes,” he says. “It’s a competition, right, but I had so much advice I wanted to impart to [the other contestants]. They never heard themselves behind a monitor before.

“I don’t think there’s any one of us that intend to be in this band forever,” he continues. “If Jeremy blows up next week – which I know he will – I know he’s going to say consider us as backup singers. I have no problem being a backup singer.”

The four of them tease each other, build each other up, chide each other.

It goes something like this:

Bowler says, “I’m quiet, meek. My voice is light. Jeremy’s outrageous, a positive outrageous. Vanessa’s laidback. Trice is sweet, a big teddy bear.”

Trice looks embarrassed.

“He’s a sweetheart,” Bowler continues. “He has a leader mentality.”

“Very knowledgeable about music,” Johnson adds.

Later Trice turns the tables.

“Boogie draws people in,” he says. “It’s intangible almost. She has a really sweet voice. She called me and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. It was like some superstar.”

Trice brags that the “single” of the record is a classic love ballad composed on acoustic guitar by Ferguson called “Miss U.”

“It’s one of those songs you hear and you get mesmerized,” Bowler says. “You could listen to it for hours.”

She does mesmerize the crowd upstairs when she straps on a black acoustic guitar and picks her ways through the jagged emotional terrain of the song. Trice commands the stage both as a maestro directing attention at the various players and a soloist delivering monologues like a Papa Bear schooling on deep romance. Bowler provides emotional ballast as a backup singer and also as lead vocalist on the Erikah Badu cover “Didntchakno,” lending a sweet, wise and enlightened presence. And Johnson gives a persuasive portrayal of a man undergoing emotional disintegration on a song that plaintively asks, “Where could she be?”

It’s a slow-jam crowd tonight that pulses with an electric undercurrent. Sensual and – according to the design of these artists – free. Ferguson, Trice, Bowler and Johnson submit themselves to the deep stream and give their audience the physical sensation of intimacy, the levity of humor and, most importantly, an experience of communal release.

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