November marks an upsurge of concert-going for me – a combination of rearranged gigs, new shows and the forthcoming London Jazz Festival. The month got off to a flying start with the three shows reviewed here. Three artists whose reputations have flourished over the past couple of years despite the constraints of lockdown. That’s been based on the strength of their recorded music. Now they have the chance to take it on tour. I’m talking about Arlo Parks, Nubya Garcia and Holly Humberstone this time around. All three in the space of five days. It’s like those proverbial London buses…
Arlo Parks at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 4 November
Arlo Parks released her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams in January this year. It won the Mercury Music prize in September. She’d been building a strong following through 2019 and into 2020 with a string of mellow, jazzy songs that spoke directly of the daily issues faced by her generation, which she called, in one of her early songs, the super sad generation. She played Latitude, on the Lake Stage, in 2019, but I didn’t know her music at that point and was at something else. Her music – mostly a mid-tempo groove which draws comparison with Sade if you are my age – and her reflective, sensitive lyrics were perfect for the lockdown mood. Black Dog, a beautiful song which is about a friend suffering from depression, but also about the friendship and care that helps them through, was perhaps the song that summed her up best. And while her music is predominantly in that jazzy soul/ singer-songwriter mode, her own musical tastes are eclectic. She presented a series of Artist in Residence programmes on BBC 6 Music where she got to choose the music she loves; all of them were great listening. One was devoted entirely to Radiohead, which was intriguing. And if you listen to a track like Eugene, one of her most popular songs, the bass lines sound like they might have been influenced by some of the tracks from In Rainbows.
I missed Arlo at the summer festivals this year. She was due to play Latitude, but had to pull out at short notice – covid-related I think. She did play End of the Road, but I missed that this year for similar reasons. So I wasn’t expecting to see her play this year; but a couple of weeks ago I was offered a spare ticket for one of the two the sold-out shows at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and thought, why not?
Two sold-out shows is pretty impressive for someone still very early in their career. It shows just how popular her music has become, especially in her own generation. It’s rare that I’ve been to a concert where almost everyone there seemed to be in the same age group – their twenties. I was a rare, greying exception, sat comfortably at the back of the level 2 seats! I got there at about 8.30, expecting to catch at best a couple of songs by the support act, Joesef. In fact, I think I saw most of his show – there had been another support, Lucy McWilliams beforehand. I enjoyed Joesef’s music – soulful with a good pop sensibility. It went down well with the crowd. He’s from Glasgow and already has a pretty strong following. One to watch.
Arlo came on at 9.30 and played for an hour, including the encore. Felt a bit short to me, but one of my daughters back home begged to differ. That’s standard, she thought. I guess it depends how big your repertoire is. Arlo’s back catalogue is pretty extensive now, but she went through most of her most popular songs, both off the album and from previous singles, in that hour. She had a good, slick band – quite a few of them – and varied the pace of the songs nicely, so that Black Dog was slowed down a little, and became even more soulful as a result. Those Radiohead bass lines rang true, and the guitarist even got the chance to let rip towards the end of Sophie. The stage was embellished with plants and flowers – all part of that concern for well-being I guess. Hard to pick out highlights – there was just a mellow vibe all the way through, poised on the edge of dance music. Plenty to sway along to (if you were so inclined). And the crowd made an anthem of Super Sad Generation at the end of the main set. On the surface, an odd thing to celebrate. But then again, maybe an act of defiance, two fingers to the generations who have messed things up so royally.
We had had a poetry reading in the middle – the Collapsed in Sunbeams piece which introduces the album. And the encore featured Hope, which was a nice way to end: you’re not alone though you think you are. Evidence of the unabashed sincerity that permeated this show. Reciprocated by the audience. Something to make you feel optimistic about the future when it is in this generation’s hands.
This was a homecoming for Arlo – she is from West London. She made it clear how much the reception meant to her. Later on social media she wrote, this is dream fuel, this is full circle, this is being completely and absolutely alive. You can’t get much better than that.
Nubya Garcia at Electric Brixton, 7 November
If Arlo Park’s set was slightly on the short side, that wasn’t an issue for Nubya Garcia! She played for an hour and a half, and would have gone on a lot longer if she could have. She and her band were having a ball. And so were we. This was music, jazz music, of the highest quality. This was a vibe that you didn’t want to end.
Nubya’s debut album, Source, was released in August 2020, one of the many excellent recordings made by the new generation of jazz musicians over the past couple of years – another standout being Moses Boyd’s Dark Matter. Both albums featured in my top twenty albums of 2020. The music of Source lives up to its title, drawing on music from around the world, the sounds that have inspired Nubya’s own musical development. It’s an album that I liked from the first time I heard it, but it has also grown on me, as the layers, the sources revealed themselves with each listen. And live it provides so much scope for interpretation, reinvention, as great jazz music always does. That scope for reinterpretation is demonstrated by a new version of the album which contains a variety of remixes of the original tracks. It’s called Source # We Move. My friend Shane, who came to the concert with me, couldn’t resist buying the vinyl version from the merch table. A cool £25! When did the humble vinyl album become so expensive?
Nubya and her band had played in the BBC tent at Latitude this year, and were magisterial then. Tonight they were that, and more besides. Her band are all brilliant musicians in their own right: Joe Armon-Jones on keyboards, Daniel Casimiri on the double bass and Sam Jones on drums. You could focus on any one of them and marvel. They started with the track Source, with a wonderful reggae dub infusion underpinning the tune. Daniel’s bass lines reverberated through the hall, while Joe added the spacey echo from his synths. Meanwhile Nubya’s sax explored the possibilities of the melody. It was engrossing. It lasted longer than twenty minutes, but hardly seemed like it. It was much like that for all the songs. There were only five through the whole show, but within each one there were new stories, different directions. The Message Continues followed Source; it was equally magnificent, with Joe’s keys ranging far and wide, sometimes providing subtle backing, other times stepping out to lead the dance, over the solid foundation of the bass and drums, a joy in themselves. Daniel was given the opportunity to begin the third song, Pace, with an intricate few minutes of soloing on the double bass – completely captivating. Nubya gave the crowd the choice between two songs for the fourth: Inner Game and Before Us. The cheers for both were equally enthusiastic, so she plumped for the latter. Things finished with a new song – I didn’t catch the title, but it was another delight.
The show ended at 10.45, close to closing time, but you could see she was itching for more. As with Arlo Parks, this was something of a homecoming, the chance to play her songs live in London again. She’s from north London and we were south, but that’s a minor detail! For so many artists, whose careers have been put on hold for 18 months, even if they have carried on recording music, there is a sense of catharsis as they return to the stage. All the frustration, all the love of what they do is palpable. Nubya’s performance tonight was an expression of love, no doubt about it. And the crowd loved her back. It was a privilege to be there.
Holly Humberstone at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 8 November
Back to Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Monday for singer-songwriter Holly Humberstone. Jon and I saw her at Latitude, in the BBC tent again, and were impressed. She combined heartfelt ballads – some with just an electric guitar, others with piano – with songs that combined anguished melodies with dance beats that work for the modern age. All played (or pre-recorded) by her – it took a certain amount of dashing around the stage to keep things going. And she had a great voice – tender, plaintive but powerful enough to hold the melody on the more upbeat numbers. I’d say there was a bit of folk/country influence in what she was doing, but it has been adapted to reflect a modern pop sensibility. Not unlike Maisie Peters in that respect, but overall a bit darker in feel.
Holly is from Grantham, in the East Midlands. Not a town that stands out, even in the East Midlands, though it is notable for one of its previous inhabitants – Margaret Thatcher. I spent a bit of time there as a teenager, as I lived on an RAF station called Cottesmore, which is not too far away. We used to go shopping there. I remember nothing about it except that it had a decent record shop, where I bought records by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Robin Trower. We are talking pre-punk mid-70s here. Holly has an ambiguous relationship with the place – she escaped it, but like anyone, will still feel the tug of her roots. She spoke about that before the first of two songs in her encore. It was called London is Lonely. You’ve made it out of the small town to the big city. It’s exciting, but intimidating, and yes, sometimes lonely. It’s a feeling I experienced myself when I first came down to live and work in London in 1980.
Holly’s sound is pretty different to that of Arlo Parks, but they do have things in common, and not just their age – they are both 21. They both like Radiohead for a start – just as Arlo has covered Creep, Holly has tackled Fake Plastic Trees (which she played at Latitude, but not tonight). Above all, both are very honest about their feelings – their self-doubt and frailties. If anything, Holly was more candid than Arlo in her between-song patter. Almost excruciatingly so at times. And she seemed genuinely overwhelmed by the size of the crowd at the Empire – everyone there for her. She struggled at times to get beyond how amazing it was, and possibly the nerves were getting to her. But when she strummed the first chord on the guitar or played the first notes on the piano, it all came together. My impression from tonight was that she finds it easier to express herself in song than in speech – on stage at least. That’s not unusual – we all know that music can express feelings that words alone can’t always articulate.
The set ranged through most her songs released so far, including one called Thursday which she said was her first. (It’s not on Spotify). I think she said it was about her relationship with her sister, who had been going through difficulties. Another example of that candour which she finds it easiest to express in song. I like the songs when she picks up the electric guitar – there’s a connection with Julia Jacklin there, whose music I love. But the big songs, the ones that helped to sell out the Empire, are the ones with an infectious beat as well as a strong melody. Notably Falling Asleep at the Wheel, The Walls are Way Too Thin, and the new single Scarlett. Those three came at the end, and left the crowd on a high, even if the lyrical content is rather downbeat. The super sad generation again, celebrating the fact. But the country music tradition too. Sad songs are often uplifting – for their beauty, or their rhythms. And Holly Humberstone’s songs succeed on both counts.
Another quite short concert – under the hour. But really enjoyable. Fascinating to see how Holly was dealing with her surge in popularity – not just here, but in the USA where she has just had a successful tour. I had the sense that she was finding it difficult to take it all in, and that’s hardly surprising, especially after the enforced inactivity of lockdown. She found her release in the music and gave it her all. And received an ecstatic audience reaction in return.
Just as with Arlo Parks and Nubya Garcia, Holly Humberstone’s show was a celebration of being back to enjoying this thing called music, which means so much to us. They have all broken through in the most difficult of times. And now they have been able to show what they can really do when they get the chance to connect with their audiences. It has been a huge pleasure seeing and hearing them do that so successfully these last few days.