Quite often when one goes to gigs, the support act and the main act have been selected in a schizoid manner. It can be heartbreaking to watch for support acts, when the main attraction’s audience don’t connect with the openers. The atmosphere is muted and the overarching sense is one of hanging around. I’m sure it can improve the support act’s stagecraft but playing to a disinterested and somewhat absent audience must be an occasionally bruising experience.
Last night at the Royal Festival Hall was the polar opposite. Whoever had the nouse to book two such singular, idiosyncratic but wonderfully talented individuals needs a pat on the back.
Eska’s on her way back to the scene, three years after her eponymous debut LP. We saw her in Islington (read about it here) with a full band and it was apparent just how special she was. Playing with a full band, she tore the place up, crisscrossing confidently between styles and nailing them all.
This was a different performance, a self-acknowledged work in progress and none the worse for it. Arriving on stage on her own, surrounded by tomtom, cymbal and various electronic keyboards, she was a one-woman show. The woman is Magic Woman, her new project. Things got even stranger when she conducted a brief interview with herself about Magic Woman during the course of the gig, via a pitch shifting electronic vocal device which created a male-female dialogue.
The material was all new with the exception of Flowers, delivered on a ukulele to give some light and shade to the electronic nature of the rest of the set. She was a force of nature, long newly dyed dreads swinging, violently setting off sample via drum pad with one hand, whilst playing keyboard riffs with the other.
The new songs were in one sense is in keeping with her debut, in that it covers many stylistic bases from angry electronica, acoustic folk and strutting soul. Her voice continues to stun, with a range and expressiveness that few can match. Whilst the black influences are immediately obvious and the more out-there individualism is there, what was also evident was a subversion of some classic rock forms too, with the one song featuring an American highway chug (and none the worse for it), with some Stevie and Christine Fleetwood Mac vocals. An extra layer of charm was added with her three-year-old daughter talking loudly to her through the gig.
Eska’s minimal set up was cleared away whilst Moses Sumney’s elaborate microphone stand remained centre stage, waiting for his arrival. Emerging dressed in an immaculately all in one suit (which caused a few issues in the toilet break between encores, he later confessed), Sumney brought to mind Grace Jones in her Nightclubbing pomp.
Backed with a three-piece band with no bass player, Sumney’s vocals were immediately brought to the fore alongside his acoustic guitar playing on Don’t Bother Calling. Sumney is just one album into his career (2017’s Aromanticism) but he is already drawing a huge crowd to the Royal Festival Hall and owning the space. Whether it was conducting the audience in a technically demanding harmonic accompaniment or walking into the stalls to sing back to the stage, the bond between the performer and the crowd was evident.
His voice is astonishing, mostly singing at the higher end of his register but occasionally diving down. He’s a confident magnetic personality, the comparison with Eska being totally apposite. The use of electronics, the distortion of the voice, the confident stature – Eska and Moses appear to be cut from similar cloth.
Sumney gave us a couple of covers. Bjork’s Come To Me from her debut album was not to great a stretch, given the sonic area that both covers. Amy Winehouse’s I Hear Love Is Blind was gorgeous though, quiet, tender and vulnerable.
He’s nailed the electro-acoustic soul thing. He’s got the chops and the personality to refine it even more but he’s also got the capability to head somewhere different. Fresh from his Mercury Prize performance with Sons of Kemet, Shabaka Hutchings joined the band on a few tracks and the jazz saxophonist blew hard but never to the detriment of the whole. Sumney heading further into a jazz direction is possibly on the cards. Blessed with a voice that has a range and expressiveness that brings to mind Jeff Buckley, he has the same dynamic confidence.
Where Moses goes next will be fascinating, wherever it is.