Finding a groove in the vortex

BlackStar Projects and Union Transfer present Terence Nance’s V O R T E X in concert

3 minute read
Nance, a Black man wearing a white shift, sits on a stool onstage and sings into a handheld mic, a spiral in light behind him

A spiraled vortex illuminated by stage lights overlooked the Union Transfer audience during Terence Nance's Thursday, May 25, performance of V O R T E X, his debut album. The spiral shrine dangled from the ceiling just behind a blanche-styled 13-piece band of sound-makers playing the bass, percussion, saxophone, and piano, to name a few. Whether Nance was inspired by church or not, the meeting-ground felt hallowed nonetheless.

An intimate crowd gathered at the Spring Garden Street venue for night one of a two-night run of Nance's album played live for the first time. An ode to storytelling, Nance's cosmically playful performance coupled with composition by Anthony Tidd and an opener from singer songwriter Madison McFerrin. It was a joyous affair amplified by radical drumming and harping.

A natural storyteller

The theme for the evening was love and its fluidity in Nance’s life metaphysically, and perhaps even subconsciously. A natural storyteller, Nance shared his experiences on imagination, infatuation, and infinity in his music, almost mimicking a nursery rhyme.

Launching into his set with the title track, he enticed his audiences with a sweet melody, but forewarning lyrics: “Find a way out of love, find a way out of her before it’s too late.” With an infectious beat resembling Afro-Caribbean and Latin vibrations, it was almost hard to heed Nance’s advice rather than dance.

Throughout his set, Nance most notably balanced harmonic ballad-esque songs like “Stay” and “Sanity Envy” with even the most hardcore acoustic anthems like “I Miss Things I Never Had,” which moved the atmosphere into a stronger indie music wormhole. During “I Miss Things I Never Had,” Nance endured an internal back-and-forth, toying with the truth of what he’s had, what he hasn’t had, what he made up in his head, and more, evoking hushed laughter from the crowd. One constant in the album’s music is the presence of video game-like intros. “Terence’s --- Love” (which starts like the opening of Super Mario) pairs weird and cacophonous trumpets and a saxophone roar that rival a quick and upbeat drum, together offering a head-banging path into the beguiling notes of a harp.

A showman and a conversationalist, Nance took a brief intermission to reveal his band is unnamed—something he intended to settle over the course of his two-day performance. The concert became an interactive program, giving the audience a choice to make: name the band. With two options, Cosmic Cause or People of Play, the audience remained undecided on night one, leaving it up to the fate of the Friday, May 26, attendees.

Visual and auditory mastery

The V O R T E X performances were part of Nance's SWARM, an interdisciplinary exhibition curated by Maori Karmael Holmes with BlackStar Projects in collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art (running through Sunday, July 9, 2023). Produced by Nance and close collaborators Solomon Dorsey, Nick Hakim, and his brother Nelson Bandela, this album is another fold in Nance’s magically surreal universe. It’s easy to get sucked into the otherworldly playing of “In Contemplation of Clair’s Scent” and emerge a fan of hard beats and child-like musical whimsy. A mix of spoken word and prose, upbeat rhythms, and cool carols dedicated to women of the past and the memories shared between them and Nance, the live performance paid homage to funk artists, poets, and musicians who emphasize narratives. The hour-long set was an embodiment of play, led by Nance and Tidd, who kept the band spirited and the audience attuned to the tempo.

The antithesis of hot, fast, quickly adored and easily forgotten music, Nance’s performance and style interweave both his visual and auditory mastery of emotion. Extending an offer to the audience to get up and dance not once but twice, his live performance felt composed of the same magical elements that made SWARM so attractive: an emphasis on community and the sharing of time and public art. V O R T E X allots room for experimentation within sound, style, and artistic expression—a creative risk that is surely paying off.

Above: Terence Nance in concert at Union Transfer. (Photograph by Mochi Robinson, courtesy of BlackStar Projects.)

What, When, Where

V O R T E X, by Terence Nance, in concert. Presented by BlackStar Projects May 25-26, 2023, at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia.


Union Transfer is a wheelchair-accessible venue, with access to ground-floor seating, restrooms, and the bar.

Masks are encouraged, but not required.

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