The nice thing about playing a major stage in your hometown is that you can count on support from old friends. On the other hand, it also means that those same people can shout out whatever they want during the mic breaks. “Man, they just had to bring out my childhood nickname,” a slightly blushing Mara Hruby said Wednesday night, responding to a slightly inaudible call from someone from way back in the back of the sold-out crowd at Yoshi’s Oakland.
Coming to the stage, Hruby recalled her first concert experience seeing Ahmad Jamal play at the venue, and for the relatively new singer – having so far released an EP From Her Eyes that’s largely a collection of covers – the historic significance seemed to be working on her. “You’ll have to excuse me, I’m a little excited to be on this stage,” she said, following a rendition of Mos Def’s “The Panties” and her original “So Come.” “I have the jitters a little bit.” Maybe there were visual signs of this, like a firm grip on the mic stand or platform heels rooted in place, but you couldn’t hear it in her voice. Hruby sang with composure and a deceptive ease, whether drawing the room's attention sustaining the end of Andre 3000’s “Take Off Your Cool” or playfully bouncing along the highs and the lows of her own “The Love Below.”
When the evening’s “special guest” Chris Turner (an Oakland native who has spent the last nine years in New York) joined Hruby on stage for a few songs beginning with D’Angelo’s “Send It On,” it made for a nice duet. Whereas Hruby's voice is typically soft and reserved, Turner’s is more forceful, bombastic. Given stage time to himself, he sang a track called “All We Need Is Love” – what he would refer to as his “anthem” – with the didactic emphasis of a preacher. It could have been corny, in the same way that Turner proclaims to be heralding “the Romantic Movement,” but has enough charm and genuine feeling behind it to back it up. (Hruby, perhaps just beating him to the compliment, said that Turner “doesn’t know that he’s the next great musician of our generation...seriously.”)
After singing with Turner, Hruby appeared more relaxed on the stage, and dedicated the next song to her father, just recently married. “If you choose to be with me,” she began to sing, as the girl at the table next to me slipped her arm around her date, a guy that I honestly thought had been blowing it. Maybe, reflecting Hruby, the crowd was warming, getting caught up a bit in the Romantic Movement. And it seemed the band, an unimposing group suiting the venue, started laying into it as well. First turning a cover of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” – the low on Hruby’s EP for me – into a highlight, and then adding some funky bass on the original “I’m Sure” before giving the guitars a workout for Jamiroquai’s “Alright.”
Early in the night Hruby had coaxed the audience to speak up, get vocal, saying that she liked to interact. As her performance went on that became more clear, whether it was with the crowd, Turner, or the band. Closing the show with Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful”, one line stood out: “If I gave you my love, I tell you what I’d do, I’d expect a whole lot of love out of you.”