As the focus for the BBC Electric Proms, the Roundhouse was tonight packing in the crowds for the “Godfather of Soul”, Mr James Brown (click for review). Downstairs and round a passageway, past some toilets, another gig would begin at the provocative hour of 10:30pm in the tiny FREEDM Studio space, tonight an all-seater venue devoid of chairs.
Nitin Sawhney, a man described by Will Young as someone not to call if you feel you’re under-achieving, had taken the chance of participating in the eProms to collect together an assortment of guest collaborators, familiar and new. They’d be joining him for a run through what was billed as a “two hour downtempo event” comprising in the main of material from his seven albums.
From the off, to the sound of Sunrise, Sawhney’s VJs Yeastculture ambled around the stage, melding live images with recorded material and projected the morphed results behind a crammed-in band. From stage right Sawhney switched frequently between flamenco guitar and grand piano, introducing his guests as they shuffled on for their songs and off again, all succeeding admirably in negotiating wires, instruments and audience members.
Sparkliest by some margin was the always flamboyantly costumed Natacha Atlas, whose reflective eyelids demanded the audience’s attention, while striking up-and-coming vocalist Reena Bhardwaj and long-time Sawhney cohort Tina Grace – a chanteuse who seems to meditate blissfully while singing – also took turns at the microphone, and Ninja Tune-signed Brighton songwriter Fink contributed guitar and vocals.
A backing band came fronted by Bollywood soundtrack stalwart Ashwin Srinivasan and a box of tricks – wooden flutes of every possible shape and size. When his soaring, evocative notes joined the mix his colourful instruments grabbed attention as much as the sounds they emitted. Behind him were arrayed a cellist, percussionists and turntablists, occasionally joined by R&B vocalist and pianist Laura Izibor, who was even given time to play one of her own pieces on Sawhney’s grand.
So far, so varied. But well before Will Young’s faultless performance of Home, a track Sawhney wrote for the sometime Pop Idol‘s third album Keep On, audience members were beginning to suffer from numb bums and full bladders. With the venue packed and cameras filming from the main door, escaping was no easy task, and there was to be no interval. What to do?
Sawhney, it seems, is far too serious an artist to allow for such frivolities as toilet breaks, necessitating a steady stream of embarrassed scurrying for much of the back end of the set. (Your humble scribe did his best to shuffle past without treading on Guy Ritchie’s fingers or falling into Chris Martin’s hunched form, hiding under a grey hood that stayed up throughout. It’s been one of the Electric Proms’ notable successes that even musicians not taking part have bothered to show up and take in some of the shows.)
As with previous Sawhney sets I’ve seen, the end was nigh as The Conference’s vocal jousting between Sawhney and his tabla/dholak player Aref Durvesh crackled to life. A palpable sense of theatre endured as the two men rose to an impossibly quickfire crescendo, rightly followed by a standing ovation from the audience. Yes it was late, and either a set in two halves or one shorter would’ve been preferable, but Sawhney’s border-eradicating night of downtempo showmanship, especially in this tiny room, had proved to be something rather special.