Meah Pace is one of New York's most charismatic soul singers. Her stage presence is electrifying: mic in hand, she pounces and twirls across the stage with the energy and grace of a professional athlete. And as the former head cheerleader for the Baltimore Ravens' squad, she is. Since her cheerleading days, and when she's not fronting her own group, Pace lends her voice to acts as diverse as the mighty protest song collective the Resistance Revival Chorus, the lavish improvisational funk orchestra Burnt Sugar, and "dirty gospel" wildman Rev. Vince Anderson (and his Love Choir), among others. She's bringing her signature, eclectic, high-voltage mix of soulful, danceable sounds to the David Rubenstein Atrium for a free show on Thursday, May 30.
Vocally, Pace can shift in a split second from silken calm to a righteous wail, from sleek, unadorned clarity to earthy grit, depending on what her lyrics call for or where she's taking her audience. Pace grew up in rural Maryland and even when she wasn't dancing, she was still surrounded by music. "I'm really into divas!" she confides, an unexpected revelation from someone as down to earth as Pace is offstage. She counts Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, and Tina Turner as formative influences, along with Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Sam Cooke.
Pace has come a long way from serenading her friends on the school playground with Whitney Houston hits. As a second grader, she joined her church choir, eventually making it to New York as part of a girl group that attracted major record label interest. (The group disbanded soon afterward.)
Pace's first Manhattan gig as a bandleader was at a now-vanished New York landmark, the Bull's Head Tavern. With no stage, she rented a PA system using tips she had made there as a bartender. Since then, Pace considers her proudest moment onstage to be her debut at the Apollo Theatre—on her birthday, as the lead singer in guitarist Binky Griptite's band, the Mellomatics, opening up for the legendary Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Pace's parents had made the trip up from Maryland for the event.
Although Pace has performed at Lincoln Center before, this show marks her debut as a bandleader, and she'll be joined by a stellar lineup of musicians: musical director Randy Ingram on keyboards, baritone saxophonist "Moist" Paula Henderson, bassist Dan Fabricatore, trombonist John Speck, tenor saxophonist Jeremy Udden, drummer Eric Kalb, and guitarist Al Street.
Empowerment is a major theme in Pace's music; she's been known to break out an absolutely harrowing, stark version of Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed," underscoring the song's message of solidarity with women who've been abused. The songs on Pace's 2014 album 11:03 reveal how much emotional terrain she can cover, from the simmering, Latin-tinged strut of "Promised Land" to the title track, a steamy midsummer Friday night scenario with a surprise ending and echoes of vintage Tina Turner. These are just some of the flavors Meah Pace might throw into the mix at the David Rubenstein Atrium on May 30.