Soon after taking the stage Adrian Roye jokes that the sparsely attended Brixton show is ‘intimate’. It’s true there are few enough people that he can converse with audience members one by one. But he seems untroubled by the low turnout as he engages the crowd with a relaxed authority that belies his small frame and gentle manner.
Dreadlocked and softly spoken, Roye wears an army jacket and sips rum and honey from a hip flask. His slightly melancholy voice is reminiscent of Tracy Chapman‘s and his themes are somewhat similar. Songs deal with prejudice, loneliness and the feelings that abide after a relationship ends. At one point, Roye poignantly explains that a song was written for a friend who contemplated suicide.
But though some themes are maudlin, the music is lively. Roye strums his acoustic guitar quickly, complementing bass from Beth Dariti and Dan Paton’s tight drumming. The show starts with Simon Lewis on electric guitar, but really takes off when he exchanges this for the cello. The solemn emotionality of this instrument suits Roye’s songs. Though he has a soulful voice, there is also something refined about Roye’s delivery. It’s the blues but dusted off and wearing the respectable clothes of a string concerto.
There are folk influences too, especially with the combination of plucked acoustic guitar with bowed cello. On the whole the music is mature and understated, as if by tacit agreement the band members are playing foil to Roye’s flexible voice. He is the star of the show, as revealed when the other band members leave the stage to let him do two solo numbers.
The first is the electrifying Josephine, which has audience members catching their breath owing to its soulful intensity. In theme and style it bears a close resemblance to the American folk classic Where Did You Sleep Last Night, sung most famously by Lead Belly. The anger and longing are just the same, and though Roye’s voice ascends far higher than Lead Belly’s, the raw emotion is just as plain. The painful confession of a man deprived of one he loves “more than life itself” gains even more power from its ambiguous message, with Roye’s despairing protagonist promising to show Josephine with his fist what he can’t show with words.
Roye’s performance is so powerful one almost wants the show to continue as a solo act. But fortunately the band prove themselves immediately on their return to the stage, with Dariti switching to mandolin to play a fantastically high-spirited song which is perhaps the high point of the set. Afterwards Roye takes up a bongo drum and allows a reggae influence to creep in. As with the rest of the repertoire there is a pop sensibility at work. Nearly all the songs return to a catchy vocal hook and although the instrumentation is fairly experimental there is always a certain accessibility owing to the clarity of Roye’s lyrics.
With an EP called Telephones And Traffic Lights released last year and a single, The Only Poster Child, coming this month, Adrian Roye & The Exiles are already somewhat established.