Many pop stars have a keen fascination with Shoreditch, an area of London which has seen enormous gentrification in the past 20 years and has become synonymous with fashion and modern art.
Kylie Minogue memorably launched her X album there and brought her ‘friends from Boombox’ onto ITV’s The Kylie Show (Boombox being a now-defunct club night). Girls Aloud’s Nicola Roberts attempted to kick-start her solo career there, while the newly-reformed Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan (formerly of Sugababes) played their only live show to date at the painfully hip Ponystep night. The symbiotic appeal isn’t difficult to fathom – the pop stars hope to garner an ersatz edge and credibility by association while the faddy Shoreditch crowd get to indulge in some celebrity glitz without shame.
Modern celebrity doesn’t come much bigger than Beyoncé and while little sister Solange hasn’t replicated her commercial success, it still seems incongruous for a Knowles sibling to be playing the tiny XOYO, a venue more used to hosting cutting-edge dance DJs. Nonetheless the combination of Solange and Shoreditch makes sense, the artist having cultivated an indie cool which has seen her referencing New Wave and collaborating with Essex’s Dev Hynes (who, as part of Test Icicles and in his incarnations as Lightspeed Champion and Blood Orange, must have played scores of venues in the immediate vicinity).
Inevitably, the room tonight is absolutely rammed and there is an excited chatter prior to Solange’s extremely low-key entrance. The crowd break into a roar as she walks on stage and immediately launches into Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work, a track from 2012’s True EP which highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of that record. It propels itself along with a compelling Prince-like ’80s shuffle, sounding not unlike a lost Wendy & Lisa single – yet as a song it doesn’t really go anywhere and ends up hanging its appeal on Solange’s flawless vocals (she effortlessly sounds almost exactly as she does on record).
Solange is certainly an appealing performer, with her amiable dialogue and infrequent outbreaks of synchronised dancing with her band inspiring huge affection from the audience. She seems genuinely excited to be here. Yet one of the perennial problems of Shoreditch gigs is felt throughout the evening – namely that a significant minority of the crowd, seemingly more interested in being seen to be there than actually enjoying the gig, won’t shut up. The resulting constant backdrop of prattle competes with the sound from on-stage and you can’t help but imagine how much better the evening would be were Solange performing to a fully-appreciative crowd.
Still, there are moments that prove so irresistible as to overcome this – Lovers In The Parking Lot is a complex, velvety triumph which floats by on a dynamic Solange vocal, while Locked in Closets (reminiscent of Control-era Janet Jackson) offers a surprisingly steely melancholy. An unexpected cover of Selina’s I Could Fall In Love slots perfectly into the set in an interpretation which confirms Solange as a creative force to be reckoned with.
If there is a complaint about the performance it’s that it ultimately lacks variety – while True’s downbeat air of romanticism captivates on record, here its subtleties sometimes get lost in a stretch of amorphous mid-tempo R&B. This is nowhere more obvious than when Solange performs the stunning Losing You and the whole room is suddenly dancing, fixated on the music. As a song its ’80s Madonna-meets-Tom Tom Club vibe is a whole other level of brilliance than most of her other material, injecting some much needed energy into proceedings. Final song Sandcastle Disco, meanwhile, is a Technicolor Motown delight, showing that Solange can more than compete with Beyonce when it comes to bewitching pop. These two songs are utterly commanding and enormous fun, showcasing an artist at her very best and sending the audience home satisfied.
Solange is clearly a major talent but there is a sense that she is still finding herself as an artist and even as a performer. Lacking her sister’s awe-inspiring slickness, she is carving out a niche as a more discerning pleasure, yet this evening demonstrates that she is most accomplished when she relaxes into the music rather than intellectualising it. A third album is planned for this year – it certainly promises to be interesting, but here’s hoping that Solange doesn’t forget how fun she can be.