A golden trio of concerts indeed! All in the space of a week. Three artists whose music I love; three of the best from recent years. And all playing at rather special venues.
Greentea Peng at the Royal Festival Hall, Thursday 16 June
Greentea Peng – aka Aria Wells – is someone whose music I’ve followed closely ever since I first heard the sultry break-up ballad Used To in 2018. Her music is a languid combination of soul, jazz, rap and reggae, with a distinct dubwise inflection at times. Very much the sound of London – London in the summer, London at night. The music is a mellow pleasure; but listen to the lyrics and you hear the voice of someone who has something to say about the way things are. And she is fighting back.
Her debut album, Man Made, was released last year. There had been a steady stream of singles and EPs since 2018, but it was good to have a full long player. Put it on and just chill. I liked it a lot and made it No 3 in my albums of 2021.
I saw her play twice last year at festivals; Latitude and Green Man. Latitude in particular was a real joy – she was last on at the Sunrise Arena on the Sunday. The last show of the festival for me and many others there. It was a festival full of the sense of liberation, the first big gathering after the lockdown restrictions started to be lifted. And to be in that crowd, moving to those languid beats, singing along to Mr Sun (miss da sun) and Jimtastic Blues – you’ve got to fight for your right to party – felt like a new dawn.
It was no surprise to see that Greentea Peng, with her musical influences and her take on the world, was invited to be part of Grace Jones’s Meltdown festival line-up at the Southbank this year. There is definitely a line that you can trace from Grace Jones, especially those wonderful albums she made in the early 1980s with Sly and Robbie laying down the drums and bass. But the Festival Hall itself – wow! It’s a big place, an imposing arena. And it has seats! I was intrigued to see how she and her band would make the leap.
I had the pleasure of the company of my daughter, Izzy, for the show. Greentea Peng is one of those artists that unites me with all of my children, which is always a good feeling. The hall was respectably full and almost immediately the music began everyone stood up. Quite hard to sway to the beats sitting down! The show was a generous hour and a half, with some quite extended numbers taking up that time. The groove was established from the start: mellow, jazzy, with that dub feel. I did feel that it was a bit one paced at times and it dragged a little in the middle. Having said that I was delighted when she played Used To about half way through. The familiar sounds of Mr Sun and Hu Man livened things up towards the end and sent everyone home happy.
Gazing downstream from Hungerford Bridge at the lit-up bridges, St Paul’s and the City towers as we made our way afterwards to Embankment Station, I was reminded once again how much I love this city. Reflecting on the fact that I’d just seen Greentea Peng at the Royal Festival Hall reminded me even more.
Sharon van Etten at O2 Brixton Academy, Friday 17 June
When I booked the tickets for me and Jon for this show back in February, I was really looking forward to it. With the temperature close to 30 degrees during the day the main concern became not wilting in the heat at Brixton Academy! In the event, it was fine. I’d booked seats and the place was well-ventilated – one positive legacy of the covid measures.
Sharon van Etten’s music has been a constant companion for me since I discovered the wonders of her 2012 album Tramp, and, in particular, the song Give Out, which became a bit of an obsession in 2014, around the time the next album, Are We There, came out. Give Out, which I enjoyed playing on the guitar, was a song about the hope – and the fear – that exists at the beginning of a relationship. Much of Sharon’s work explored the debris of broken relationships. The songs had an inner fragility, but were often powerfully expressed. There was redemption in all the darkness, a surviving spirit. In that respect she had a kinship with the music of Bruce Springsteen, and maybe that is one of the things that attracted me to it.
She played a great show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2015. Thereafter things went quiet on the musical front for a while – she started a family, studied for a psychology degree and began an acting career. She returned to the music in a big way in 2019, with the release of the album Remind Me Tomorrow. It was a dramatic return, with a rockier sound, but the lyrics were as unsparing as usual, including about herself, never more so than on the sparse opener I Told You Everything. But the song that has risen above all the others, to become one of her anthems – perhaps the anthem – is Seventeen, a dialogue with her teenage self. Sonically, it is the most Springteenesque song she has ever written – and none the worse for it!
I saw her a couple of times in 2019: first at the Roundhouse, then at Green Man festival. She her band were on top form on both occasions. The music had a real punch. The pandemic intervened after that, of course; so this tour, accompanied by a new album, was her second return to the limelight after time away. The new album, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, is another powerful work, perhaps with a return to some of the tenderness of some of her early, more acoustic albums. Reflections on life during the pandemic have clearly played a part in the compositions.
I found some time to get to know the new album before the concert, and it grew on me very quickly. Songs like Anything, Born and Come Back are destined to become real favourites, I think. Lead single Mistakes and Headspace are built for live performance; while Darkish and Darkness Fades reveal Sharon’s most fragile side, with that hope/fear thing again. All of these and a few more featured in the show – I was glad I’d taken the trouble to familiarise myself with the album. I really enjoyed the rendition of Born, which ended the main set. It follows a classic anthem pattern, starting slow and contemplative, building gradually before breaking out of the shackles. Crowd favourite Every Time the Sun Comes Up – supreme until the emergence of Seventeen – still featured, but was faster and more guitar-based than usual. I’m not sure it entirely worked, but it’s good to try out different interpretations.
I really enjoyed the encore. First we had Darkish and Darkness Fades, Sharon solo for some of it. And then, to finish things off, to lift the mood, even if the lyrics are wistfully looking back at a freer time, Seventeen. There is no escaping it now, Sharon, this is the song you will always have to play! A true anthem, an uplifting end to a captivating concert.
And why was this concert a special moment for Sharon van Etten? With a capacity of just under 5,000, Brixton Academy was the biggest headlining show she has done, as she told us with delight. I was glad to be part of it.
Kacey Musgraves at Hampton Court Palace, Wednesday 22 June
“I don’t know how they got me here,” said Kacey at one point, before going on to say how amazing and unusual the experience was, playing at Hampton Court, once the home of King Henry VIII. And yes, it is pretty weird, as well as being a magnificent venue, especially when darkness falls and the lights glow on the old tyrant’s palace.
Kath and I were there with my friend Dave and his wife Fiona, who live on the other side of the river from the palace. A lovely part of the world. We’ve been to a few shows there over the years, highlights being Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music a couple of times and, in 2019, none other than Kylie. Like Kacey this time, she was playing a warm up show ahead of an appearance at Glastonbury festival, which is back in full effect this year. This weekend in fact. I can’t wait, and I’m not even going! Watching it on the BBC is not a bad alternative.
I said Sharon van Etten has been a constant musical companion since 2014. Well, Kacey Musgraves has been even more so, if only since 2018. That was the year that her album Golden Hour was released. I played that album constantly – it became the soundtrack to my year, and I made it my No 1 in my end of year Best Of. It started to win big awards like Grammies the following year and launched Kacey beyond her country music base to pop stardom in the US. Her traction isn’t quite as great in this country, but she still has a strong following. Golden Hour was a happy album in the main, a product of her marriage. But there were warning signs. The song Happy and Sad reflected on the fact that at her happiest moments she was waiting for things to go wrong. And they did. Last year’s album Starcrossed tracked the emotions of her crumbling relationship and eventual divorce. So she stuck to country script after all, even if the music remained a subtle blend of pop, dance and country.
So we expected a good number of Starcrossed songs in the show on Wednesday. Not too many, in case it became a bit depressing. Kacey even joked about that, but she did still start with five straight from the new album. And they worked really well. First because of the musicianship; second because the audience, which was pretty youthful for Hampton Court, seemed to know the words and were singing along. Starcrossed has really struck a chord with, let’s say, millennial women – of whom Kacey is one of course. Good Wife, with its catchy, ironic chorus, stood out for me.
After the Starcrossed introduction, we moved into a Golden Hour section, starting with the title track, which I love. It covered the poppier elements of the album – Butterflies, Lonely Weekend, Space Cowboy, High Horse – but was all a lot of fun. And then it got really interesting. First she sang a cover of Elvis Presley’s I Can’t help Falling In Love With You, which is on the soundtrack to the new Baz Luhrmann film on Elvis. Then, sitting on a stool, she played a lovely acoustic version of Merry-go-round, one of the great songs from her first album, Same Trailer Different Park. A song about the hopelessness of life for many in small town America, a place from which she came herself. And after that, another cover: Fleetwood Mac’s classic Dreams. Kacey can take on Stevie Nicks any time!
The main set finished with a couple more from the new album – good, upbeat sounds. And then, first up in the encore, the song I love most: Slow Burn from Golden Hour. A song about taking your time in life, and true to my heart. Rainbow, from the same album concluded things on a lovely, positive note. We left with a warm glow – to go with the glow from our wristbands!
Next stop for Kacey, the Other Stage at Glasto. I’ll be making an appointment with the iPlayer.