Steamy soul was the order of the night when Marsha Ambrosius and Melanie Fiona sold out the Theatre of Living Arts on a warm Monday night.
Ambrosius had the hometown advantage, as she acknowledged throughout her headlining performance.
"I'm not just a visitor. I have a mortgage here," said Ambrosius, who came to Philadelphia from Liverpool more than 10 years ago, first to find fame as a neo-soul superstar as the singing half of Floetry, then as a sought-after songwriter for the likes of Alicia Keys, Mario, and Michael Jackson.
From the moment she hit the stage, you sensed the audience's love and anticipation for this artist, whose debut solo disc, Late Nights & Early Mornings, finally came out last month. Outside of a few mix tapes and several duet appearances, Ambrosius hadn't released new music since the 2005 Floetry CD Flo'Ology.
Ambrosius' voice was athletic yet subtle. The highs were stirring, the lows were rumbling, and every bellow and howl had delicate, breathy nuance. Somewhere between Anita Baker and Teena Marie, her vocals slid, then stammered through the scatted soul of her debut's title track. Into this she mashed up wordless "ah"s from Art of Noise's "Moments in Love." That showed how playful she could be with an earnest, free-flowing ballad.
She let her British accent slip through the sassy, vengeful lyrics of "Hope She Cheats on You (With a Basketball Player)." The finger-snapping "Far Away" gave her voice a dramatic showcase. Covers of Rufus' steamy "Sweet Thing" and Jamie Foxx's creamy "Freak'in Me" (a hit she cowrote and sang on) allowed her a delicious sensuality.
Yet nothing opened Ambrosius up like an appearance by local diva Patti LaBelle. The pair traded glass-shattering licks on LaBelle's slow, yearning classic "If Only You Knew," and both did LaBelle's patented flapping arms. When Ambrosius returned to the stage for her quietly storming "Lose Myself," she was spent, but in the very best way, exhausted after a night of passionate revelry.