All paths in Central London led to Camden Town last night, specifically legendary venue The Jazz Café, the occasion, the official launch of Jo Harman’s sophomore album People We Become, a body of work that has already been widely acclaimed by the industry and fans alike.
It can be difficult to haul punters out on a Sunday night in Winter but last night the newly refurbished Jazz Café was pretty rammed and there was an excitement in the air as fans finally got the chance to celebrate the release of the album with Jo and hear these majestic new songs live for the first time.
As I sit here this morning I hope my attempts to capture the imagery and aural power of the gig do at least do some justice to the really special night that unfolded before us. An extended band of seven masterful musicians in addition to Jo carried us right through the album’s ten tracks but in true Harman style she eschewed the simple task of playing the album in sequential order. She plucked them out with elan ensuring there was an ebb and flow to the gig. Up on stage with Jo her usual rhythm section of Andy Tolman on bass and Martin Johnson on drums were joined by the twin lead guitar axis of Nat Martin and Luca Faraone, Gary Sanctuary on piano and Niamh McNally and Natalie Palmer on backing vocals.
As ever Jo’s performance was utterly sublime being invigorated by the chance to share this wonderful music with her loyal fan base and the band gathered around her really did achieve the amazing feat of replicating the sounds and feel that were created on the album when Jo was surrounded by some of Nashville’s finest session players.
That would have been treat enough but the evening was given considerable added lustre by the appearance of the brilliant Elles Bailey as the opening and guest act. The result was an explosion of surely some of the very finest female vocal talent this country has to offer.
As the clock struck 8:00pm Elles took to the stage with her stripped back band of two guys on bass and electric and acoustic guitar and the trio immediately proceeded to lay down some seriously low down dirty Delta Blues, the groove immediately hit by the pulsing bass lines and slide riven acoustic guitar underneath Elles vocal, rich on the one level and rasped on the other, terrific start to the set.
Hitting her stride right from the off Elles dazzled with the range and power of her voice combining that with a natural stage presence that enchanted the audience. Low slow poignant Blues was a feature of the beautiful Girl That Owned The Blues, a lament to the tortured Janis Joplin, the struggles of her life etched in to the emotional vocal delivery from Elles aligned with soft keys and gentle guitar strokes. Barrel Of Your Gun spat venom and threat, the vocal plunging low to weave in and out of the strong bass lines and ragged lead break.
Perfect Storm was an immediate hit, homage to that hotbed of the southern music Muscle Shoals, imagery in the lyric and expression in the voice and the pulsing licks.
A cover of Willie and the Bandits Still Go Marching In followedas Elles grooved across the stage hands outstretched and constantly on the move to accentuate the notes she was searching for. Sustained applause ensued, very well deserved.
Real evidence of the confidence and presence that this young lady has followed in the set closer as she was brave enough to ask for and got, full audience participation on the low down and dirty groove of the bruising Howlin’ Wolf. As the fiery lead break and bass pulsed Elles carved out a deep rasping vocal and we joined in at the appointed moments with our howls. Brilliant opening set.
After a short interlude Jo’s band took their places on the stage and ushered in the opening lines of Silhouettes Of You and as Jo joined them and immediately unleashed the voice that we have all grown to love we fell in to the palm of her hand and willingly stayed there for the next 90 minutes. The rich texture of the vocal drenched the venue and we were drawn in. Nat Martin and Luca combined superbly with Nat easing out some searing slide runs on the bump and grind of No One Left To Blame urging on Jo’s soulful vocal delivery. And then to an absolute standout of the night when Jo really did unleash the full power and range of her voice adopting the position of High Priestess of Gospel as she bellowed out the lyric to Reformation, Natalie and Niamh immediately falling in to line with the equally powerful backing vocals whilst Nat and Luca carved out the squalid rapid licks. Suffice it to say we all became converts to the cause, this really did hit home with power.
And from there Jo took her voice to the absolute opposite end of the scale, falling to little more than a whisper on the beautiful ballad Person Of Interest, the band coming right down to, wrapping Jo in their melody the whole piece floating like a feather in a gentle breeze but not before Luca delivered a rich note laden solo that cried out.
Swirling keys and an empathic slide guitar gradually enmeshed on the equally beautiful Changing Of The Guard, another soaring vocal delivery from Jo, her voice rising and falling hitting high and low notes, eyes closed as she searched for the feel. An exceptionally soulful cover of Bowie’s masterpiece Life On Mars followed, also a chance for Nat to let his inner Mick Ronson go with a searing solo.
Single plucked notes from the twin guitars melded with Martin’s deft drum fills to float underneath Jo’s deeply harmonious whispered vocal on the haunting Final Page, more lovely backing vocals enriching the sounds and mid song Luca eased out a wrought torn solo that captured the mood of the rich melody.
Another swift gear change led Harman and the band in to the lead off single the funked up soulful groove of When We Were Young, pumping piano meshed with the funky guitar lines oozing from Martin and Faraone’s frets, a real dance floor filler this one. Not one to do the easy thing and sweep home on these pacey vibes Jo took us right down again on the wonderful Lend Me Your Love, a song that has become a staple in the live set and once again here this night it was easy to see why. Soft and perfectly pitched vocal floated out over us laying itself over the delicate breeze created by keys of piano and strings of guitar. Watching Jo deliver this you can see the emotion etched on her features as she reaches right inside of herself for the notes.
On the album Jo has co-written five of the tracks with long time musical partner Michael Davies and we were blessed that at this point he was welcomed on to the stage whereupon he strapped on Luca’s SRV Fender and led the ensemble into a furious hard driving version of the strident Underneath the River. Davies firing off a monstrous solo over throbbing riffs and the rhythm section groove and Jo lost herself, that long mane tousled across her face as she again cut loose with an awesome vocal.
At this point the place was rocking and again the easy thing to do would have been to carry the show home with more of the same but that is not Jo’s way so the whole band bar Sanctuary left the stage and the pair delivered what can only be described as a spine tingling most wondrous version of Michael McDonald’s classic ballad I Can Let Go Now. Soft notes from the piano flooded out and slipped themselves under Harman’s hurting hushed vocal, the pain and emotion of the lyric etched in her features as once again she reached deep inside for the feel. Such is the hidden power of this ballad that there was total silence amongst the audience, voices stopped chattering, glasses stopped chinking and hairs stood up on forearms that were then raised in salute as the last notes died away.
Rapturous applause greeted the songs end and the band joined Jo for one last time on another beautiful gentle ballad, Lonely Like Me that carries a seriously introspective lyric of Harman looking at and learning to love herself. The mood captured once again by the emotion fuelled vocal, the soft piano keys like tears of a child and a majestic Faraone solo that was peeled from the guitar layer by layer.
Well that is it my attempt to do justice to a really special night that is part of Harman’s latest journey to obvious greatness, a privilege to witness. Nigel Foster
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October 30, 2016