Ware’s debut album Devotion has been rightly acclaimed for its classy, stylish, downbeat R&B. A top five hit in the UK, it was nominated for the Mercury prize for the year’s best album. “I think this li’l lady is going to be massive,” no less an authority than Katy Perry recently confided to her 29m Twitter followers.
Yet, for all the praise, a question hung over this homecoming show. Could Ware recreate Devotion’s sophisticated textures outside the studio? It opened unpromisingly with the singer silhouetted in dry ice, her band invisible behind her. As Ware launched into her album’s title track the murky staging suited the song’s swirling sentiments – it’s a dreamlike account of a relationship disintegrating – and the singer clutched the microphone as though clinging to a support. The moodiness was stultifying. Happily it also proved misleading.
The lights went up for the next song; so did the atmosphere. “Still Love Me” triggered vibrant memories of the 1980s, with the now-visible trio of musicians behind her evoking Prince while Ware’s sing-song vocals echoed Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”. A powerful rendition of “Nightlight” prompted a heckler to congratulate her for being “real” – the ultimate digital-age compliment.
“I am real,” she beamed back.
Waves to friends and family in the audience underlined the point. So did the lack of computerised effects in the music. There was no recourse to Auto-Tune tonight.
Devotion draws on the self-possessed vocals of 1980s sophisti-pop, especially Sade, whose first album came out in the same year as the 28-year-old Ware was born. This side of her came across on stage but she revealed a fiercer side of her singing personality too, growling her way through “Something Inside” and throwing herself wholeheartedly into a cover of Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love”.
Rumbling basslines aligned her songs to the London dance music scene from which she emerged. Nods to Soul II Soul and Massive Attack placed her in a longer tradition of bass culture. Ware’s show didn’t just do justice to Devotion: it brought new energy to the album.