Bilal Live At Fabric, London | Gig Review

How does one comment on a performance that felt more like a bout in a ring with a heavyweight champion than with a Neo soul crooner who hasn’t released an album in nine years and has kept, more or less, to the fringes of the supposedly dead music genre ever since?

You start, of course, by recovering and if you can’t do that you at least start by recollecting the significant blows. The ones that made your eyes water, that made your ears ring like wind chimes or had your stomach acids turning upwards before your legs went numb and your face met the cold floor.

Just in case you haven’t guessed already, the heavyweight champion I’m referring to is born Philadelphian singer/songwriter Bilal Sayeed Oliver and the performance; his live no holds barred show at Fabric in London on Wednesday 14th July.

The above sensations can quite easily describe how it felt  as the man his affiliations include, Common, Sa-Ra, Dr Dre, Jill Scott, Beyonce and Guru, walked onto the stage amidst a wave of urgent red lights, thrashed out material from his new album Airtight’s Revenge and pretty much worked the crowed with every molecule in his body and then came back for an encore. By the time he had finished his two hour long set it was hard to tell who was more worn out, audience or performer.

The show began with the backing band going into a funk frenzy that sounded like Prince reworked for a post-Hip Hop generation, while Bilal himself sang as if he was James Brown from the future on speed. The first hour continued in this vein, while during the second, the sounds shifted into the more familiar Neo Soul territory which Bilal pursued on both his debut 1st Born Second and his never released album Love For Sale.

By the time he had finally given into cries from the crowd to perform his cult hit ‘Sometimes’ the band were playing rhythms akin to psychedelic blues and the song felt slightly unfamiliar. Not that that made the fans sing along less or that it stopped Bilal from running up and down the stage while practically screaming the chorus into the microphone as if uttering profanities during an argument.

He slowed things down a little for another fans favourite taken from his collaborations with Robert Glasper, titled ‘Open Mind,’ and afterwards teased fans with the suggestion that he might leave the stage without performing ‘Soul Sister’.

The suggestion was, as expected, totally false and when Bilal arrived back at the centre of the stage (for an encore of which nobody asked) not only was the song on his lips, but a bottle of wine was in one hand and a sweat infested mic was in the other.

And so began what was a sort of post concert for the real fans [or at least for anyone who didn’t have work in the morning] and still had several atoms of energy left in their bones. Eventually what had mostly been an incredible night ended on an ambivalent note; nobody wanted the performance to end yet nobody, apart from Bilal himself, had the stamina to keep it going.

–David Mensah