Lisa Fischer & Grand Baton @ The Broad Stage

Lisa Fischer and her bandmates can turn a familiar song into something fresh and new
Photo by Djeneba Aduayom

“Transcendent” is a word often employed by people reaching for superlatives to describe Lisa Fischer’s singing and dynamic range.

Fronting her intuitive band Grand Baton onstage, the Brooklyn native exhibits Joplin-esque power whether belting out roof-scraping high notes or delicately caressing the melodic curves of Gershwin’s “I Love You Porgy.”

It’s a different kind of performance thrill from those Fischer has reliably provided since the late 1980s as backup singer for mentor Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Sting, Chaka Khan, Nine Inch Nails and, most notably, the Rolling Stones. (Her bravura solos during the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and Turner’s “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” became anticipated highlights for fans.)

“I’m thankful people come, and that they’re open,” she says of the connection she forges with audiences. “That they take something in and hopefully release something too. It feels like an ocean for me.”

Lauded as a “freak of nature” by Chris Botti, Fischer was prominently featured in Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning 2013 documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” alongside legendary backup singers Darlene Love and Merry Clayton.

Bruce Springsteen, interviewed on camera, made the point that “singing background remains a somewhat unheralded position. … That walk to the front [of the stage] is complicated.”

One of the most intriguing aspects of Fischer’s walk to pursuing her own creativity is that she started making it in the early 1990s — and chose to turn back.

Fischer won a Best Female R&B Vocal Performance Grammy for “How Can I Ease the Pain,” a hit from her 1991 solo album “So Intense.” (In a rare tie, she shared the Grammy with Patti LaBelle, who won for “Burnin’.”) But instead of putting together a road band, she returned to her comfort zone singing behind Vandross and the Stones. Not until last year, buoyed by accolades for “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” did she venture out on her first world tour as a solo artist.

“I’m thankful for the way that things have happened,” she says softly. “When I had my first record deal, I was 31. Looking back now at 58, that seems young; but back then, 31 was seen as a bit old. A lot of folks went, ‘Oh, she ain’t 18 no more.’ [Laughs.] …

“If ‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’ had happened for me at that age, I don’t know if I would have been emotionally ready for what’s happening right now. I just feel really grateful that it’s happening in a time when I have had some experiences to share. I feel more balanced and more accepting of the me that is me now, and less afraid of all the thoughts that go on in a person’s head — all the fearful, self-deprecating voices that either haunt you or shape you. [Laughs.] I think they’ve cooled down a bit.”

Gracious in conversation, Fischer focuses on positivity rather than time spent wrestling with self-doubt or music industry ageism. But those struggles inform her performances with nuanced depth. On tour with her band, she similarly benefits from decades of blending with other artists’ voices, within the imposed musical architecture of their songs. She credits Vandross with teaching her how to “find the newness in [songs] every single day,” and Turner’s explosive power and “beautiful desperation” with demonstrating that “when you reach out and sing the way that she does, you survive.”

Live, Fischer and Grand Baton have transformed Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” into a psychedelic swamp of soul, the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” into surreal jazz and “Wild Horses” into an emotional tour de force. They offer illuminating examples of how Fischer inhabits a lyric.

“I don’t know how it became what it is versus what it was,” she says of the process of rearranging “Wild Horses.” “But during the walk of living in the lyric, it kind of exposed itself in a different way. I never know what’s ready to come out of me, and in a way I’m glad that I don’t. It keeps it alive — it’s like watching someone grow. [Laughs.] The songs are like little people to me.”

Although she’s been developing original material with musical director/guitarist JC Maillard, drummer Thierry Arpino and bassist Aidan Carroll, she remains best known as an interpreter. What draws her to a song is its message and emotion, and how its melody “shapes the room of the music.”

“I tend to lean toward things that are emotional, that allow me to connect more deeply into myself and understand myself a little bit better. I don’t think I’ll ever completely understand myself, and that’s OK. But I think starting there helps to understand emotionally what’s going on around me, and how people feel around me,” she says. “There’s this sensitivity, this thing that happens in the silence that we can all sort of feel. I think that was the lesson I took away from watching the Stones and being involved in their live performances. Because the music they did earlier in their career has grown up, and it’s gone through these beautiful changes. It’s a richer experience.”

— Bliss Bowen

Lisa Fischer & Grand Baton perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 4, at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets start at $95. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit

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