sat 20/07/2024

Cassandra Wilson/Lionel Loueke, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Cassandra Wilson/Lionel Loueke, Royal Festival Hall

Cassandra Wilson/Lionel Loueke, Royal Festival Hall

The Grammy-winning singer’s angsty, delayed performance sparks a public row

Cassandra Wilson: legitimate claim to the title of greatest living female jazz vocalistMark Seliger

“I’m sorry I’m late,” said Cassandra Wilson to a half empty Royal Festival Hall, after a sulky rendition of “Don’t Explain”, the opening track from her Billie Holiday tribute album, Coming Forth By Day. It was an hour and fifteen minutes since the singer was due on stage and half an hour since the directors of concert promoter Serious had arrived in her stead – amidst boos and irate whistles – to tell us she was refusing to leave her hotel room.

A good chunk of the 2,500-strong audience had gone for their trains, demanding refunds on the way out and venting their frustration on Twitter, and those who were still there wanted answers.

“You want to know where I was?” said the singer, who seemed a little unsteady on her feet. “Billie Holliday had this wonderful saying: ‘Showbusiness, you have to laugh to keep from throwing up’. Well tonight I couldn’t laugh.”

Wilson’s band (who we were told had gone back to the hotel to persuade her to come out) did an admirable job of keeping the show on the road as the singer wandered on and off stage and bickered with audience members in the front row, scolding them for taking photos. Pianist Jon Cowherd’s playing ranged from soft and supple to brilliantly brutish. Reeds-man Robby Marshall provided sensitive embellishments to Wilson’s vocals (still velvety and rich, if a little half-hearted and not always in tune) and violinist Charlie Burnham accentuated the bleary, blues-rock feel that characterises Wilson's album Coming Forth By Day, with yowling, electric guitar-like solos and liberal use of his effects pedals.

What is clear though is that Wilson should not have performed

But for all the positives – and despite an engaging first half set of tumbling grooves, tricksy time signatures and percussive vocals from Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke – this was a sorry sort of evening. Who knows what went on backstage, but the Grammy-winning vocalist was clearly not herself. She made two further, arrestingly blunt references to vomit during the truncated, hour-long set and commented that it had been “a weird tour”.

She has since taken to Facebook, however, to accuse Serious of "malicious and unprofessional conduct", describing their employees as "dismissive, disrespectful and in full breach of contract" before drawing further parallels with Holiday, who was "maligned and exploited too much in her life time". David Jones of Serious has denied all of these claims in articles published by The Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph.

It’s all a bit of a mess. What is clear though is that Wilson should not have performed. At her best, the singer holds a legitimate claim to the title of greatest living female jazz vocalist, but this angsty, erratic set by no means did her justice. It served no one – least of all the music and the bewildered, rightfully disgruntled audience. It would have been better if we had all gone home.



Ms. Wilson was not bickering with audience members. They were her friends whom she was teasing. If you got that wrong, it's quite possible you misread the entire evening. As a journalist, it's your responsibility to dig deeper. This article is superficial.

For the record, Cassandra ended the first song by adding the words "don't take photos, live in the moment" to the lyrics, and then went on to tell the audience in no uncertain terms to turn "everything electronic off". Immediately after that she had the jokey interaction with the person in the front row, telling the whole audience that this one person could still take photos because they were "special". How that isn't being disrespectful to her audience I do not know. Secondly, as we left I overheard several other audience members muttering what I had suspected throughout her short performance, namely that she had ingested substances that had adversely affected her vocal ability and made her behaviour erratic. While it is possible she had been vomiting in her hotel room, the fact the gig wasn't cancelled earlier on in the evening suggests she wasn't medically ill that night. Regardless of how she was being treated by the promoters, Cassandra owed it to her audience that night to keep herself in better shape for such a high profile performance or cancel. For that I cannot forgive her and I will never spend money on seeing her live again.

I agree with the comments here entirely. Ms. Wilson treated her audience with contempt that night, and fully deserves the backlash. Her attempt at justifying her behaviour neither explained her behaviour, or excused it. Everyone is being offered a refund, whether they stayed on not, which suggests that if anyone was in breach of contract, it was her.

What a strange coincidence! "Dig deeper " is exactly the same phrase a member of her management team used when sending me a snooty personal message on Facebook. Surely they don't think that sending PM's to members of the public who have had the temerity to comment on this story, and leaving anonymous comments on unfavourable reviews is a professional way to go about damage limitation, do they?

Afraid of depth? I'm sure there's a pill for that.

Thanks for your comments. I'm inclined to be sympathetic I have to say. She seemed unwell. It would have been better to call off the gig, even at the last minute. Yes, a lot of people would have been disappointed, but it would have avoided all of this mess.

The fact is that she walked off with all the money (which she claimed she had not been paid) leaving the festival and the hall with a huge bill for refunds. She then blamed everyone but herself. She cannot be sued for breach of contract or slander because she lives in the States. Who would have guessed she was going to be such a bad trip? She shames Billy Holiday, who was a true professional.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters