“We did it,” Eska Mtungwazi screams ecstatically when launching in to the home straight of this phenomenal gig. “I don’t know what an album launch is exactly, as I’ve never done one before.”
This might, of course, be one of the longest gestating album launches in British musical history, and whilst Eska’s fanbase remains a select (but, as Eska herself acknowledges, exceptionally loyal) few, she is finally beginning to receive the acclaim she deserves as an individual artist as well as for her collaborative strengths. There is a story developing here, and it will be very interesting to see where it goes next.
Eska’s self titled debut album revels in her refusal to limit herself by style or genre, and this gig (played with a tight, dynamic and expressive band) takes that notion to another level. It begins with an explosive, passionate medley incorporating the album’s infectious Heroes & Villains and a refashioned reggae groove with a semi-improvised skit on the pressure of being dubbed ‘the greatest singer in the UK’. It’s extraordinary, not least for being slightly unexpected. Those who have seen Eska in reflective, acoustic mode, or touring her English Skies project, may not quite be prepared for this level of energy, enthusiasm and physical confidence. From the opening seconds, she completely owns the stage. She bounds around the stage, dances mischievously and, at one stage, interacts with guitarist Joe Newman whilst playing a delightfully oversized tambourine.
The band injects a greater degree of depth and intensity in to the songs. Rock Of Ages, for example, now really sounds like a rock song, with crisp rhythm playing and a strong sense of poise and attack. Eska’s voice, a malleable instrument with wide range and great power, is strong enough to remain a leading presence in this heady sound mix. For She’s In The Flowers, Eska and band opt to thread the West African rhythmic impetus of the recorded song’s final moments throughout, generating a sense of motion and celebration.
The always excellent Gatekeeper, too, assumes a new heft, with nuanced rhythm section in its ascending final third. It also seems particularly appropriate in the aftermath of a General Election campaign that has been disappointing and misleading on all sides. Part of the song’s message is that when the leaders around us are inadequate, we should seek the leadership within ourselves. This could be about self confidence, or it could even be about spiritual calling. Eska’s vocals are at their most acrobatic and impressive here too.
Whilst Eska is a colossal talent who might be expected to dominate proceedings, she is a generous and open spirit who is keen to share in the captivating musical contributions of her band and guests. Guitarist Joe Newman takes several searing solos, goaded by Eska’s honest encouragement, whilst virtuoso harmonica player Philip Achille (playing chromatic harmonica with alarming dexterity and conviction) nearly steals the show. There is a particularly wonderful (and funny) moment in the encore when Eska and Achille trade licks.
For someone who claims not to know what an album launch show is, Eska fulfills the brief more than accurately. Every song from the album is given an airing, some with disarming humour. During a stripped down version of To Be Remembered (the one concession to her more familiar concert style), she stops the song and cackles when audience members laugh at a key line: “What’s so funny about the word ‘texted’?”. For the closing Shades Of Blue, her most upbeat and energising moment, she gamely attempts, with only partial success, to get the audience to clap a clave pattern in a bar of 6 followed by a bar of 9. What is arguably the album’s finest moment, Dear Eddy, is saved for an exquisite reading in the encore.
There are some extras too – an angular, groovy romp through Devo’s interpretation of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and a more-or-less spontaneous collaboration with London Contemporary Voices on a beautiful, insightful song about love written post-album (‘love has to be inconvenient’). The latter suggests that, in spite of her taking her own sweet time thus far, future Eska albums may not require such unwavering patience from her fans.
In spite of her manifold talents, Eska remains remarkably self deprecating, fun and mischievous on stage, and among the people off stage too. The whole night has the feeling of a party – a release of years of tension in trying to get this music to feel and sound just right. “This is why I don’t usually talk between songs,” Eska says after one of her many hilarious digressions, “it’s because I end up sounding like a pleb.” Lest this should end up being something of an Andrew Mitchell moment, Eska qualifies this statement “…which I am, and that’s OK”. So it may be, but she’s going to need a bigger stage soon.