Corinne Bailey Rae @ Royal Festival Hall, London | Live Review

Despite my good intentions, for whatever reason the opportunity to see Corinne Bailey Rae live had, until last Monday, evaded me. I therefore snapped up the chance to see her at the Royal Festival Hall, regardless of my misgivings about the suitability of the sizeable, somewhat sterile venue for an artist whose music suggests intimacy as much as hers. Any concerns that Ms Rae’s presence couldn’t fill the space were swiftly dashed to one side as this very emotional set progressed.

It’s fair to say that Rae’s is not the conventional big soul voice – and it’s all the more endearing for it. She can bring the room to a standstill anyway, with a heartfelt delivery complemented by the child-like vulnerability of her voice and phrasing that reveals a strong jazz sensibility. Monday’s concert reflected an artist who seems more comfortable with herself on stage than when she first hit the limelight. Her vocals, however, remain as gentle and unassuming as the lady herself appears to be. Corinne proves that you don’t have to scream to the rafters to hold the audience’s attention or pluck a few heart strings. Soul music can and should be more than that…

Concentrating on material from her latest Mercury Award nominated record The Sea, Corinne commenced the show with an extended version of album-opener ‘Are You Here?’ before going a bit more up-tempo on ‘Paris Nights/New York Mornings’. The audience listened attentively and responded with warmth although clearly, most of them were not familiar with her sophomore project. I found myself singing alone (quietly, mind) even on some of the torchlight numbers such as the sublime ‘I’d Do It All Again’.

The song arrangements stayed largely faithful to those on the album yet hearing them live brings home fully just how powerful these compositions are. On ‘Till It Happens To You’ – one of the few occasions she returned to her self-titled debut album, the musicians played as if they shared a common heartache; one that could only find expression in a very moving rendition of the track.

Half-way through the set Corinne introduced her bluesy cover of Bob Marley’s ‘I Wanna Love You’ which she recorded while on the road as part of a forthcoming EP. The song really showcases Rae’s (unsung) gift for inspired interpretations. Between the rhythmic deviation from the original and the clever, unpredictable phrasing, she really makes the song her own.

Halfway through a predominantly doleful gig, Rae lightened the mood with ‘Put Your Records On’ after which, rather sweetly, she shook the hands of two enthusiastic members of the audience who attempted to dance in front of the stage before being ushered back to their seats by security. A scaled back, almost entirely acoustic, incredibly affecting version of ‘Just Like A Star’ came next. There were several times in the course of the show my lachrymal glands were at the mercy of the fragile beauty of Rae’s performance but none more so than on ‘…Star’ and the wrist-slitting album title track ‘The Sea’.

The evening ended with yet another imaginative cover, ‘Que Sera, Sera’. Staying in her current blues-influenced mode Rae and co’s rendition is a far cry from the perky little ditty made famous by Doris Day. Not that this is a bad thing; the sombreness of Rae’s interpretation puts the focus back on the wisdom of the lyrics. (An honourable mention goes out to John McCullum and Kenny Higgins for stellar performances on guitar, vocals and bass).

You don’t go to a Corinne Bailey Rae concert expecting pyrotechnics and acrobatic dance routines. As far as a straightforward artist-shares-her-gift-with-the-world night of music goes, Rae delivers exactly that. And when it’s done with this much commitment-and elegance-nothing more is required. As my companion for the evening put it; “In this world of stardom, it’s so good to see such simplicity.”

–Tola Ositelu

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