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By William Michael Smith
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Most people remember November 7 as the day of indecisiveness. An all-night duel ensued between two ambitious presidential candidates, who campaigned down to the last ballot in California, as an entire country waited for the results. That all-night battle has ballooned, of course, into weeks of double-checking and second-guessing as each candidate swears up and down that it is hewho came out on top. But Prudencesa Renfro, a former Houstonian who goes by the name of Pru, had more pressing things on her mind that day than wondering who would be the next leader of the free world.
In the span of 24 hours or so, this lady would embark on a whirlwind campaign of her own -- all in one city. She was making her presence known in her hometown, promoting the release of her debut album, the aptly titled Pru. She was letting the locals know that she was the latest young R&B artist to break out from Houston and pick up a major-label deal (with Capitol). While the rest of the country was cursing the endless now-he's-won-it-now-he-hasn't flip-floppings of the major networks, Pru was spending the day in Houston, the very day her debut went public, to notify friends and peers that one of their own had made it -- and it would be nice if you gave her some love?
It all began the night before, on November 6, at the skyline-gazing hangout known as Scott Gertner's Skybar. At around 9 p.m., the artist performed to a packed crowd of African-American brothas and sistas. In person, she resembles Kelis, a frazzled-hair riot-grrrl (minus all the talk about how much she hates her man). But Pru's vocal stylings are more reminiscent of the work of '90s boho beauties Des'ree and Dionne Farris. On disc, her music is soulful, earthy and organic. Those same adjectives best describe her live performance, with a tinge of sultriness thrown in for visual appeal. She doesn't have any of that tongue-in-cheek, cynical "Bills, Bills, Bills"-type junk in her arsenal; she's all natural.
While on stage, she wowed the crowd with tunes from her debut as well as the odd cover song, most notably her relentless rendition of Sade's "Smooth Operator." (Both song and artist are said to have exerted a lot of artistic influence on Pru.) After her set ended at around 10 p.m., she was whisked into the club's VIP section, where she took a breather before meeting her newfound fans. She could barely find the time to spark up a conversation as people filled up the area, asking for autographs, taking pictures and just basking in her afterglow.
"South Park represented here tonight," said one man clad in gold jewelry. The man said he grew up with the guest of honor in the neighborhood. The artist's family was also there to lend support and share in her glory, including her mother, Patsy (wearing one of those glittery turbans that C. DeLores Tucker always wears), who singled-handedly raised Pru in a liberal, highly creative environment. Around midnight, Pru and company had to clear out so she could prepare for the next day's nonstop itinerary.
The following day, Pru began making the rounds, doing meet-and-greets at various record stores and stopping by some radio stations. All this hustling and bustling made Pru miss her 4 p.m. sound check at the Skybar for another show later that night. She finally showed up at 5 p.m., but did only a couple of quick numbers before heading back to her hotel to get ready for an early-evening set at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore and Cultural Center, near her old South Park stomping grounds.
At 6:30 p.m. the audience was already forming at the Shrine. One of the promotional reps made sure folks knew they were in the right place, plastering both the inside and outside walls with Pru posters while making small talk with them about their voting practices. ("You voted for Bush -- ewwww!")
At 7 p.m. Pru arrived, along with her family and a gaggle of publicity people, and toured the facility before moving into one of the multipurpose rooms for her performance. After a pair of poets warmed up the audience, Pru stepped up to the mike to sing a few brief but boisterous numbers from her album. The standouts were "183 Miles," a diligently harmonious New Age soul number, and her edgy, I-will-survive first single, "Candles." The crowd was soon on its feet.
After she was done, she offered up the usual clichés as if she were a seasoned pro and not a newcomer: She thanked everyone for coming out and told them how much it meant to see her neighborhood friends again. "I grew up around here," Pru said, quite humbly. "So to come back here and perform for you is really wonderful." She then signed more autographs before taking her leave. A moderate number of cars followed her back to the Skybar, where she would perform once again to a heavily hyped crowd.
A week later, with her place in the world more established than either Bush's or Gore's, Pru finally had the chance to talk, without distractions and without an ensemble of record company weasels directing her every move. Just one woman and her thoughts. She talked about her Houston upbringing, how she headed out west to Los Angeles five years ago, after dropping out of Texas Southern University, to start her singing career. She talked about her many influences (aside from Sade, they include Michael Jackson, Sly Stone, even Hank Williams Jr.), which she stirred together for the hodgepodge of sounds that is Pru.
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