by Dom Jones
Before last night, Kevin Ross and Ro James were names that I’d briefly read about and voices that I’d heard mostly in passing. Seeing them in concert at The Middle East Nightclub in Cambridge would be my first full foray into their work. A Berklee alum, I was already excited and curious to see where Kevin’s post-Berklee career had taken him sonically, and to observe the opener/headliner dynamic between him and Ro James. I tend to find that the opener/headliner dynamic is often severely imbalanced, with the opener either being several degrees better than the headliner or completely left field from the headliner’s style and therefore creating a strange and inconsistent overall sound to the concert. In the case of Kevin Ross and Ro James, it was the former.
The first performer of the night was LA native Major Myjah, who gave the performance of an obvious newbie, but in earnest.
Singing over the vocal tracks to his songs was the first misstep, with his exhaustion presenting itself by the third song. Still, he danced and smiled and fought to keep his voice energetic, though it wavered in and out, supported by the fact that it wasn’t just the background vocals playing on the tracks, but the lead as well. Ultimately, Major Myjah’s performance left me underwhelmed with his voice, his songwriting, and his acquiescence to the current sound so devoid of meaningful storytelling and intentional vocal dynamics. He was definitely trying to give us a show, though, and in that regard, I give him an A for effort. Enter Kevin Ross.
Well… actually, enter the sound guys, first. Technical difficulties between sets left us waiting for Kevin’s performance for a bit of a lengthy period of time, and the crowd around me began to get antsy. One group of girls in particular continuously commented on their displeasure with the wait, but they would eventually be quieted by the sound of Kevin’s band and the bright lights of Middle East’s downstairs performance space. His first song, admonishing the crowd not to forget about him, was a force that drew the audience into his grasp with such brevity that one might have thought he was, in fact, the headliner. His high energy and deft dance moves on stage didn’t diminish his vocal prowess at all, as he let off tasteful and well placed riffs and interacted with the crowd from the beginning. By the end of his first song, the audience was clearly in a space of adoration, if some were playing hard to get. Those of the second group would become sing-along fans with everyone else, when Kevin smartly launched into a medley of some of the most popular cuts from the 90s: everything from SWV’s “Right Here” to Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk” to Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down.” The transitions during this point of the show were so flawless that I wasn’t surprised to hear that he majored in CWP during his time at Berklee from 2005 to 2009. Of his time here, he said:
“Berklee is what you make it. It’s a school of networking. It’s about the relationships that you make. That’s what this business is about – relationships. How strong can your bond be with someone else? Your musicianship in this business, unfortunately, comes secondary. It’s a bonus that you’re talented, but to be able to communicate and network the way that you should is just as vital as any other step that you practice.”
His practice in networking has worked for him, as he’ll be releasing his album, The Awakening, March 24th. Having opened for Maxwell and Ne-yo, he is now on the precipice of ascending to greater heights in his own solo career. His single, “Long Song Away” is #1 on Urban AC Radio, and it is very obvious why. Updating the traditional sound of soul, he is a clear and quality addition to the Motown roster and legacy. Watch the video below:
Upon remarking that Kevin’s bio reads as though he initially launched into the stratosphere and then met some challenges in his career, he responded to me:
“I still had to climb, but when we reached the peak, I don’t think that I knew how to handle it. I didn’t have my business together. I always look at myself as an artist, singer-songwriter, but not the businessman. That was very important for me to have longevity. Despite the team or the label, you have to have a concrete foundation, face, vision, and complete business structure. Every artist is a corporation and we have to move as such.”
It’s clear to me through listening to his music and through speaking with him that he’s found his footing and is ready to push forward towards his ideal place in music history. His challenges at Berklee are similar to many of the ones that I currently hear students talk about, including financial. His inspirations at Berklee are also similar, as he dotes on Professor Armsted Christian as someone who both encouraged and pushed him. Many students, including myself, had similar experiences with Professor Christian, and he is a greatly missed presence on campus.
Almost a decade since he graduated, Kevin has earned his current place in the industry. Before I leave him, I ask him in an ideal world, what does he want his debut, The Awakening, to do – to which he responds:
“I want for The Awakening to wake people up. I want for them to be aware of how powerful they really are. God blessed us with so many gifts, and I feel like we just don’t reach our full potential and what we’re here to do. I have to use myself as an example to say ‘I still have to persevere and push through’ because at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s the message that I’m trying to convey. I have to get to the end song (referring to his live set) to say, ‘It’s never too late, it’s never too early to live out your dreams, because I’m living proof of that.’ So, if I give up before that point, then they’ll never get to hear that message. For me, that’s the most important message that I want to get off in The Awakening: dreams do come true, never stop believing in yourself, because if everyone reached their zenith, the world could be a better place. We’re designed to be great.”
I leave considering his words, thinking that he’s already positioned himself as a headliner, not by the flash of lights and crazy arrangements, but by the authentic incorporation of substance – in the music and of the man.
THE AWAKENING DROPS MARCH 24TH ON ALL MAJOR OUTLETS.
KEEP UP WITH KEVIN ROSS AT www.kevinrossmusic.net