Laura Mvula – Albert Hall, Manchester – 16/11/16

If you go to see Laura Mvula you probably know what to expect. Conservatoire educated, MOBO and Urban Music award winner, Mercury, BRIT, Q and Ivor Novello Awards nominee, even Strictly Come Dancing (song) performer; a ‘quality act’ as the soccer pundits would say, and all round bundle of energy.

What you don’t expect is a comedian. But she is, and she’s right up there in the observational comedy stratosphere with the likes of fellow Brum Jasper Carrot and with the same killer timing. Her story about how the song Kiss my Feet came about had the audience roaring. It is one of two songs she performed that had a romantic break up as their theme and was originally named after a lover who she thought was ‘Mr Right’ but who unexpectedly dumped her. Just as she’d won over a sympathetic audience she revealed that she’d pleaded with the record company to let her change the title late in the day and that they’d finally relented, before dropping the punch line that she’d told them the new title would be Kiss my Black Arse.

For all the stories, jokes and the excellent musical performance it was a strange sort of gig. Mvula entered what was a dark stage with a simple black backdrop bearing her name, dressed in a short black dress and dripping with gold earrings and bangles. The backing band of keyboards man, cellist and two guitarists (who included her younger brother and sister) and drummer Troy Miller (who is also her producer), were also dressed in black. Even the Albert Hall’s famed rotating spots and twinkly lights failed to illuminate the entourage sufficiently at times.

Then the sound was too low and lacked depth for the first half dozen songs or so – although it was eventually put right. But the biggest issue was that everyone in the audience was seated. Even the traditional standing area had been provided with folding chairs, the same ones they sometimes use at sister venue Gorilla. This seemed to take Laura by surprise and having asked the audience to stand up almost as soon as she’d begun (they didn’t) she complained on several occasions that the setting was too ‘formal.’ By the time she got most of the audience on their feet, for the final song, Phenomenal Woman, they were like an uncaged tiger.

Mvula has only really been on the scene since her debut album Sing to the Moon in 2013 but she already has the look and feel of an icon. You’d never guess she suffers from stage fright, sometimes debilitatingly. Her band is effortlessly functional and might as well be invisible other for occasional vocal flourishes from her keyboard player; she is the focus, make no mistake.

The keys, especially synthesiser keys, played a large part in her second album, The Dreaming Room, which was released this summer. So much so in fact that her new-found obsession with synthesisers (and she plays an all-white keytar herself) made her concerned that her new sound might alienate fans. Blending synthesisers into an existing format can be tricky but she found the formula and never once tonight did they sound out of place. For the most part, they were simply uplifting.

The 17-song set began with ‘Overcome’, her first single for three years, a (recorded) collaboration with Nile Rodgers and one that first brought Troy Miller into her universe. It included most of the songs on the two albums.

For all the power the band could muster the highlights for me were the solo performances of ‘Father, Father’ and ‘Diamonds’, the latter of which was acapella as she “couldn’t be bothered” to play the keytar. Although there were attempts by a couple of people at the bar to ruin ‘Father, Father’ with a loud conversation more appropriate to half-time at Old Trafford or the Etihad.

Running them close was ‘Show me Love’, the second break up song. Her emotions were intensified by her sister’s violin, the cello and synthesised strings in perfect unison and, during which, she revealed she’s been divorced this year. Her voice seemed to break with emotion during that performance and it made me realise that for all the glitz and glamour of the wonderful world of popular music, this is a regular person up on the stage, desperately fighting both nerves and real-life heartache.

And I have to mention ’She,’ the first song Mvula wrote and written for her mother, and ‘Nan’ the song and the performance dedicated to her 90-year old grandma who only ever attends her concerts in Laura’s native Birmingham, not because of infirmity but rather because “it’s too cold outside.” On the night that remark was spot on. Whenever the Albert’s exit doors were opened there was an icy draught coming off Peter Street that could have originated in hell. Again, her little story about how Nan “shoved out 10 kids through her vagina” had the audience convulsing.

‘Phenomenal Woman’ having finally got everyone out of their seats, I was confidently expecting at least one of what I consider to be her signature tunes, ‘Green Garden’ and ‘That’s Alright’, for the encore. In the end, we got ‘Be my Husband’, a Nina Simone cover, which was an anticlimax. I guess it was a statement that Sing to the Moon was yesterday and this is the new Laura Mvula but I reckon I’m not the only one to have left the venue ever so slightly disappointed after what was otherwise a great gig.

Support act was a super cool Haitian/Cameroonian dude by the name of Olivier St Louis, originally from Washington DC, via boarding school and Oxford University education in the UK, and now a resident of Berlin, with his excellent band (bassist/drummer). He suffered from a similar low volume sound issue to start with but as the set progressed it quickly became apparent these boys can play.

Billing himself as ‘Rock ‘n Soul’ his songs are funky and groovy. He’s got a nice line in patter and an Mvula-ish sense of humour, too. The song ‘Couldn’t Care Less’ evolved out of a row with the missus over who should do the dishes.

He looks like a mad scientist and actually is one (a scientist) splitting his time Jekyll and Hyde fashion between bioscience by day and songwriting and recording by night.

Olivier’s got a couple of EPs under his belt with a new one, Black Music, coming out soon. He has the quality to be headlining and I’m sure the Albert Hall management will have picked up on that.

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