Mike Atkinson

From Notts With Love – Nottingham Contemporary, Friday July 6

Posted in gigs, Metro, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 24, 2012

(originally published in Metro and the Nottingham Post)

Billed as “the first of a series of events that will celebrate the wealth of talent walking the streets of Nottingham”, From Notts With Love brought six of the city’s finest musical acts together, performing to a sold-out crowd in The Space, downstairs at Nottingham Contemporary.

Although stylistically diverse, all the acts shared distinctly soulful qualities, blending classic songwriting skills with powerful, characterful vocal performances and top-flight musicianship. As BBC Radio Nottingham’s Dean Jackson remarked, in his role as compere for the night, we could almost have been watching a locally flavoured edition of Later with Jools Holland. 

While some of the acts are familiar presences on the city’s current gigging circuit, others had journeyed up from London for the night, turning the event into something of a homecoming and a reunion. United by strong bonds of mutual respect, and visibly thrilled to be sharing the bill with their friends and peers, they rose to the occasion, bringing out the best in each other’s performances. This made for an uncommonly warm and happy atmosphere, where you felt that everyone – performers and audience alike – was basically on the same side, celebrating the best that the city has to offer.

Two brothers opened the show, performing separately, but sharing some of their musicians. Tim McDonald led a seven-piece band, including a three-piece string section, whose rich arrangements complemented his smooth vocals. A harmonica player joined them for the rousing final number, One Step Back, only to re-appear playing guitar for Tim’s brother Chris, alongside two fiddles, trumpet and banjo. 

Although he is now London-based, Chris McDonald retains strong links with his home county, and he played a key role in organising the bill. Confident but never cocky, with a style that bears comparison with Paolo Nutini, Ray LaMontagne and Mumford and Sons, Chris previewed selections from his forthcoming album. If the album gets the attention that his set suggested it deserves, then his live act could easily scale up to larger stages; it already has the power and the presence to make the transition.

Oozing class from the off, Harleighblu turned The Space into a smoky jazz club – minus the smoke, of course – leading another sizeable troupe of players through a set that drew influences from Jill Scott and Erykah Badu’s neo-soul, flavouring it with the older-school stylings of Aretha Franklin, Bille Holiday and Etta James. Glamorous yet down to earth, wreathed in smiles yet singing from the heart, she opened with the brassy, languidly mocking Casanova, before twisting Madonna’s Who’s That Girl into a whole new shape.

The ever-delightful Nina Smith followed, lightening the mood with her airy, affecting R&B-tinged acoustic pop. Old favourites from last year’s Lonely Heart Club EP were mixed with new compositions such as I Can’t Read You and the delicately shimmering This Love. As for her deft mash-up of The Spice Girls (Two Become One) with The Police (Message In A Bottle), what might sound daft in theory actually worked a treat on stage.

It has been far too long since Liam Bailey last took to a Nottingham stage. Thanks to his success with Chase And Status, which has seen him play to huge festivals worldwide, adding guest vocals to their anthemic dance hit Blind Faith, Liam has acquired a commanding stage presence, without surrendering any of his unique qualities as a performer. 

Beaming with pleasure at being back home, and buoyed up by an outstanding new band, he delivered a magnificent, spell-binding set, which brought out the best in his songs: last year’s singles You Better Leave Me and It’s Not The Same, the loping, Marley-esque backbeat of When Will They Learn, and a brand new track called Autumn Leaves. By way of an extra treat, Harleighblu joined him on stage for a dazzling duet on How Does It Feel. Playful yet focussed, thrillingly idiosyncratic (and at times downright unhinged), unfettered and bursting with life, Liam exuded star quality from every pore.

Natalie Duncan brought the long night to a fittingly intense climax, previewing tracks from her remarkable debut album Devil In Me, released on July 16th. Natalie has come a long way since the days of her Sunday jazz sessions at The Bell Inn, and on Old Rock she paid fond tribute to a particularly eccentric old regular: “They call me crazy too, but you’ve got fifty years on me.” On the tender, subdued Flower, further tribute was paid: this time to an old friend, who had supported Natalie through troubled times and was now in need of support in return. 

Seated behind her keyboards for most of the set, Natalie took to her feet for Pick Me Up Bar, which nodded towards Gil Scott-Heron in its influences, climaxing with a superb coda of echoey psychedelic dub.  An unrecorded song, Became So Sweet, closed the set, causing an outbreak of dancing in the front ranks which seemed to take the performers by delighted surprise. An encore hadn’t been planned, but we got one anyway: Uncomfortable Silence, which closes the album in a sombre but stirring fashion.

Next month, an almost identical line-up of performers will reunite in London, offering the capital city a showcase of Nottingham talent. Based on the evidence of this astonishingly accomplished show, we couldn’t ask for a better set of ambassadors.

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