Laura Mvula, Jodie Abacus: O2 Academy, Liverpool

Laura Mvula at LIMF

Laura Mvula at LIMF

Showing little sign of the unease you’d expect, given recent interviews, Laura Mvula returns with songs from her forthcoming album, warmly received by Getintothis’ Glyn Akroyd.

Being told you can’t photograph the person you’ve come to photograph is always something of a red rag to a snapper so it was with some disappointment that we received the instruction not to shoot the dramatically photogenic Laura Mvula during her performance at the O2. Subsequent reading revealed an artist who has only recently gone public about her bouts of depression and anxiety and put into perspective her desire to avoid the intrusive probing of the lens whilst performing in the intimate confines of the O2. However, if tonight’s performance is by a Laura Mvula who finds the live arena a daunting place to be you would never have guessed it.

Support act Jodie Abacus is quickly back in town after his recently acclaimed performance at last month’s FestEvol. His band play a short intro and Abacus hits the stage looking totally cool in pork-pie hat and brilliant red bomber jacket as they hit a clean, bright dubby groove. Mixing the laid back sunshine of West Coast singers like Michael McDonald with the sophistication of Brill Building pop and lashings of funk and soul, Abacus seems equally at home on the soulful ballads or on the funkier, up-tempo numbers, his voice switching from a smooth rich baritone to a ringing falsetto effortlessly. The ripping, bluesy guitar solo embellishes the groove and a good sized crowd seem well primed.

The poppy funk of Hot Kitchen, with its catchy sing-a-long chorus, has them clapping along and latest single She’s In Love With The Weekend ties up a cautionary tale in a shower of feelgood disco pop. He closes with I’ll Be That Friend which shows off his arrangements to great effect: a melodic, classy song with soaring harmonies and a great hook. It’s an assured and well received set. Come back again next month!

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About half way through her own set Laura Mvula introduces Angel with the words “In this song we tried to incorporate the feeling of The Beach Boys and Kate Bush….and Bach….and Prince….and Philip Glass….Schubert….and Michael Jackson”. The eclecticism and sheer ambition of that list serves as a summary of tonight’s performance and Mvula’s delivery of it gives you some idea of the dry humour she injects throughout the evening. As we said earlier, when Laura Mvula takes to the stage there is no hint of nerves. She is chatty from the off, if slightly apologetic about the fact that the set will feature a lot of songs we don’t know from her forthcoming album, The Dreaming Room (June 17).

She kicks off with several of them, the first few revealing a darker, fuller sound than we have previously heard. The band are quickly into their stride, displaying both finesse and punch, the songs full of changes in tempo and key, never settling on an obvious hook or melody, no matter how inviting they may be, and they are very seductive indeed.

Where we had imagined the more open, sparse sound of her set at last summer’s LIMF, the early numbers here provide a veritable wall of sound. Cello, played by Mvula’s brother James Douglas, guitar, by her sister Dionne Douglas, and keys add rich textural layers over drum and bass (sometimes electric, sometimes double) which switch between breathy, barely audible whispers of brush and luscious resonance, to bang on the money funk workouts with metronomic precision.

Then of course there is Mvula herself, accompanying most of the songs on her shining white “ironing board” of a keytar, and sounding in fantastic voice. She delivers the up-tempo pieces with verve and panache but it is on the slower, more delicate, jazzy pieces that her voice takes on the timbre and resonance of the greats of the genre, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and her great heroine Nina Simone.

Ok, this is the heartbreak section”, she announces, “because I just got my heart broken for the first time by this bastard of a man (chorus of sympathetic oohs and aaghs)”. “Name and shame him” shouts one woman. “Have you tried being a lesbian” shouts another. Mvula considers this for a moment, raises her hand and holds her thumb and forefinger about two millimetres apart. “This close”, she laughs, “this is called Kiss My Arse (loud cheers)”. It’s actually called Kiss My Feet, but you get her drift. Like all tonight’s anecdotes it is delivered in a measured, thoughtful manner before she breaks into a grin and a wry chuckle. The ‘heartbreak section’ delivers songs of brooding intensity, complex melodic and vocal arrangements and delightful, lyrical soloing. There are hints of hip-hop in the rhythms that get heads nodding and feet shuffling amongst a rapt audience.

Just like last summer’s LIMF show this is a brave set, Mvula never being afraid to demand that her audience actually concentrate on the more gentle, fragile numbers in which she bares her soul, sometimes with only the faintest of accompaniments, and she is rewarded in this as you can’t hear a pin drop during the quieter passages of Flying Without You, Lucky Man and Sing To The Moon. It seems as though the audience are holding their breath at the end of some numbers until the last note fades away. When, towards the end of Can’t Live With The World, she asks the audience to join in, the response is a little muted, not because the audience aren’t totally captivated but more, we feel, because they just don’t want to spoil the absolute beauty of the voices floating from the stage.

The set gradually increases in tempo again, producing, over the evening, a perfectly paced parabola of sound. The backing vocalists are all locomotion and syncopation, and they sound so, so sweet. Their voices at times seem to capture a confluence of European choral and Afro-American gospel music that is bewitching. They never stop moving and it’s clear that they are revelling in a joyful, passionate and immaculately played set.

A two song encore features Mvula and her brother, James Douglas, in a delightful, pared down vocal and cello version of Michael Jackson’s Human Nature and a sublime Make Me Lovely.

Pure class.

Pictures by Getintothis’ Glyn Akroyd