It can’t be often that a Reuters film crew turn up at Kilburn’s intimate Luminaire, especially for what is effectively a jazz act. But that’s what the small matter of a Mercury nomination can do for a band’s profile.
Walthamstow-based quintet Led Bib’s currency has sky-rocketed since their Sensible Shoes album picked up the accolade as one of 2009’s 12 Mercury Prize Albums of the Year. Yet it’s become something of an annual joke that the Mercury panel seem to pick a ‘token jazz act’ every year, and what goes with that is generally a raised level awareness and increased album sales but very little real chance of actually bagging the award.
So tonight forms a five-man attempt to break that hoodoo as band-leading drummer Mark Holub and co showcase their fourth album and use the opportunity to gain some rehearsal time for their appearance at the awards show.
The band begin with an intensity that fades little throughout. It’s freestyle jazz but with enough form and structure underpinning it not to completely lose itself in self indulgence. The fleeting shared looks of recognition and respect on the faces of the band make this seem like an entirely improvised performance but it never descends into navel-gazing pretension.
Bass player Liran Donin is as adept at coming up with a funk-laden riff as he is a hazily mellow, strummed bassline. At one point one such horizontal bassline gradually builds, inducing intricate solos from all band members in turn and closed eyed reverie from one of the duo of sax players, Chris Williams, before the music calms again to end.
The next composition is the antithesis, beginning with a full-on blast to the senses, then calming before building up once again via keys, drums, bass and twin saxes. Consumed by the music and consuming each other’s music, feeding off it then feeding it back, Led Bib at their best are a jaw dropping spectacle.
Drummer Holub then announces they are going to have a run through of what they plan to play for the Mercury show. They are apparently given a paltry three-and-a-half minutes for their final chance to impress the judges and, after a manic tempo-shifting wigout is over, their dry run overruns by a mere 15 seconds. Job done.
Williams is frequently lost in the music while keyboard player Toby McLaren’s head movements make him look like a tongueless cat lapping at a bowl of milk, or a tortoise repeatedly having a lettuce leaf offered to him then withdrawn as he cranes his neck out of his shell and back again. But these are merely signs of how much the five-piece love what they’re doing, a feeling shared by the crowd.
In fact it’s so intensely felt that it seems that this is not just about playing music but a pure expression of the self. At times manic, at times mellow, this is as unmanufactured as it comes. The encore comes across like a free jazz version of Motorhead‘s Ace Of Spades and the crowd reaction is passionately rapturous.
Will the ‘token jazz act’ ever win the Mercury? It’s doubtful, but giving a talented band like Led Bib extra coverage could never be a bad thing. Their music may not be understood by the majority of Mercury judges or Joe Public; it’s simply not accessible enough. But while they may miss out on the 20,000 prize, they’ve certainly gained enough exposure to propel their careers to a level that will sustain them and their engaging take on forward-thinking jazz for many years to come.