LIVE REVIEW: LEELA JAMES (Jazz Cafe, 14th July 09)


On a Tuesday night in mid July, to a virtually packed house, London gave way to an intense display American Soul, Blues, Funk, and Rock in the embodiment of who’d I’d call the ‘Soul Preserver’, Leela James, whose voice, dance moves, and energy took over the Jazz Cafe for her second and last of her two-night shows in London since her UK debut four years ago.

Her band warmed up the crowd, in the lead up to her arrival, by playing an instrumental version of “When You Love Somebody,” but if we thought she was gonna start mid tempo then build up, we were happily mistaken. Leela, as many a great artist has before her, made her way to the stage from the balcony level. Though only short in physical stature, the crowd of us below could easily follow that beautiful chaos of hair that floated around each corner until she fully appeared as she descended down the stairs as her band cranked up to party tune “Good Time” as Miss James took to the stage and made sure the crowd’s energy did not let up at any point! She then began to channel the late great James Brown as she merged into a quick medley between “Doin It To Death/Gonna Have a Funky Good Time” and “Make it Funky” – the Godfather would have been so proud!

leela3Although a native of Los Angeles, you could have sworn she was reared in some small country town in the Carolinas where church and music was the foundation of the community, because throughout the evening she seemed to just channel so many soul and gospel legends.

To the latter, she seemed to momentarily become Shirley Caesar (a living legend in American gospel music) when she performed “My Joy” and even did a quick sermon and getting off the stage and into the crowd as if she were about to lay hands and heal people (though the hand-laying went the other way around and needed a bit of intervention by her manager who stayed close by, backstage).

She had the ‘congregation’ repeat after her, as many preachers do, various positive affirmations, though my favorite one was her getting them to chide the soundman, whose lack of controlling the feedback in the mikes was very annoying at times during some of the best parts of the songs.

leela2Nonetheless, Leela kept her cool and kept the party going and even got many members of the audience to come onstage to dance with her on covers of Frankie Beverly and Maze‘s “Joy and Pain”, and even bumped and grinded with a couple of male volunteers to the envy of many other men who wished they didn’t have to remain professional to take photos and film footage to write an assigned review article, and decide to jump onstage and get real close and dance with the very fit and beautiful Leela James and play in her gorgeously enormous afro while she sang in my ear and…um…err…what was I saying?

Oh, yes…the concert. Well, she and her backing vocalists, with the help of her amazing band, went into Tina Turner mode and danced like a workout; so much so, Leela had to call out for water and a stool so she could slow things down with the bluesy covers of “Don’t Speak,” but also invoking some Al Green with “Simply Beautiful,” which was exactly that.

leela1As for her band, her bass man would have gotten an approving nod from JBs and Funkadelic bassman, Bootsie Collins; the guitarist was killin’ of some Prince-like riffs, and the drummer, whom I couldn’t see from my angle, sounded like a drum machine the way he was playing so unbelievable! They all cranked it back to party mode and you know she had to do “Music” as well as “Rain,” but then took it to the Staple Singers with “I’ll Take You There” and then featured some quick snippets from her new album entitled Let’s Do It Again, and even did a brief duet with her UK opening act, Nathan Watson.

I must say, that was one of the best concerts I’ve seen this year (and 2 for 2 this month at the Jazz Cafe, since the amazing Marsha Ambrosius concert). I definitely felt it made up for the time I missed her performance during her Atlanta debut some years ago. Made this Yank in UK almost forget where he was for a moment and feel like I was back home! Let’s Do It Again! (There’s the album plug, review summary, and intended pun all wrapped in one – LOL)

Review + photography by Ahmed Sirour