thu 28/05/2020

Corinne Bailey Rae, Somerset House | reviews, news & interviews

Corinne Bailey Rae, Somerset House

Corinne Bailey Rae, Somerset House

A star is reinvented in one of the surprise best gigs of the summer.

Was this a Corinne Bailey Rae audience or a Somerset House audience? “We’re Somerset House fans,” I heard one posh punter proudly tell some friends. Then later I heard a woman talking about the Florence and the Machine gig that she’d missed earlier in this short season of concerts, as if it were a stamp missing from her collection. Could this really be an audience who were here for the building first and the music second? Yes, this enclosed yet open-air square in central London is a delightful space, but when did ambience become more important than music? And anyway, there’s no space on Earth that could make Florence and the Machine sound good to me. But Corinne Bailey Rae, now that’s a different matter.

Ever since her understated debut performance of “Like a Star” on Later... with Jools Holland on BBC Two in 2005 - and then seeing her breezily cycle her way into the Top 10 in the video for her quintessential summer hit “Put Your Records on” - I’ve been an admirer. But with the release earlier this year of The Sea I felt that all that promise had been fulfilled. Where once there had been just a quality pop act (not that there’s anything wrong with that) now there was a fully mature artist. The Sea isn’t just a quality product, it has the same reach, ambition and timelessness that all great albums have.

And now here she was, dressed in a kind of black sci-fi boiler-suit rather than the usual flowery off-the-shoulder cotton dress, and playing the sombre opening chords of “Are you Here” on a distorting electric guitar, rather than the tasteful Tracy Chapman-like acoustic of the album version. Okay, perhaps not as significant a moment in the history of popular music as when Dylan went electric, but still an indication that this is a woman who’s fighting to move on, perhaps both emotionally and artistically.

Then it was straight into the uplifting folk funk of “Paris Nights/ New York Mornings", and all I could think was, what a great five-piece band the woman has assembled. Drummer Luke Flowers was parked to Bailey Rae’s right, rather than taking the usual drummer’s position behind. But it was soon clear why. He seemed to be constantly taking cues from her, responding all the time to changes in the music’s dynamics. Then there was guitarist and excellent backing vocalist John McCullum, whose lead breaks were incisive and powerful yet completely free of self-indulgence (and how often can that be said of a lead guitarist?). When Bailey Rae says that they are her favourite band, you know this is not just showbiz rhetoric because they really are phenomenal. Whether they were holding back during ballads, giving plenty of space for Bailey Rae’s intense yet sometimes breathily quiet vocal, or pushing and punching forward the tightest of rock or funk grooves, they were on the money.

One high point of the evening was a sparse dub reggae version of “I Only Have Eyes for you” which just made me hope for an album of Bailey Rae covers one day; all done with the same degree of tangential adventurousness. Inevitably when the almost unbearably moving “I’d do it all Again” stirred into life, it was tempting to view it through the prism of her personal tragedy of 2008 (which you can read about in Peter Culshaw's interview with Corinne). But I felt that I wanted to do what I imagine Bailey Rae would want a critic to do - which is to just judge her music and her performance, without taking into account external circumstances.

So back to, “I’d do it all Again”. What an extraordinary structure this song has. It slowly builds from its velvet-soft jazzy verse to a single nakedly ecstatic repeated refrain of “I’d do it all again” which celebrates and mourns simultaneously. Sometimes a line of lyric finds its perfect melodic expression, and so it is here. Then we are back to the gentle resignation of the verse, and then the song is over before it has barely begun. Extraordinary. Along with Nick Cave’s “Love Letter” and Tom Waits's “Take it With me”, one of the most profoundly moving and original love songs of the past decade.

As for the other new songs from The Sea that Ms Bailey Rae performed last night, it’s really hard to pin down where they’ve come from. Possible influences as diverse as Pink Floyd and Curtis Mayfield spring to mind, while Bailey Rae herself can sound as sugar-sweet as Linda Lewis one minute, and as heartbreakingly lost as Billie Holiday the next. She hasn’t got the biggest voice in the world, but that voice can still be simultaneously cool yet sensual, detached yet fully in the moment. Just as her lyrics – as with most intelligent song lyrics – deftly collage the personal with the universal and the ambiguous with the specific, so the songs she wrote before 2008 resonate differently today.

Obviously by the time we got to “Put Your Records on” it was clear that if this wasn’t wholly a Corinne Bailey Rae audience at the beginning, it was now. Lots of girly voices filled the air as every word was sung along to, likewise with “Like a Star” which followed. Throughout the concert, Bailey Rae was charmingly unaffected. One saw the geeky schoolgirl she happily confessed to having once been, superimposed upon the swan-like vision of elegance she has become. Even her arrival on stage at 9pm on the dot (as the distant dong of a church clock testified, much to her amusement) was endearingly atypical of an artist of her international stature. There’s no doubt that her and her world-class band are going to go from strength to strength, so catch them on tour in the autumn. They are, as they say, the real deal.

Watch Corinne Bailey Rae's first appearence on Later... With Jools Holland

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Superb review, Howard - you took me right back to those front cobblestones, Friday night. Thank you

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