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The live circuit has inbuilt constraints impeding a richly talented performer from taking a show where the mood leads her, such pettifogging concerns as licensing curfews. Hence the voice in Laura Mvula’s earpiece telling her to hurry up: she was running out of time.
Mvula emerged three years ago with the album Sing to the Moon, which won the British singer the attention of Prince, who invited her to support him on tour. Now, after an arduous gestation during which her marriage broke up, she is readying its follow-up, The Dreaming Room, due in June.
She opened her show with the album’s shimmering intro, “Who Am I”, sung in darkness, which abruptly segued into new track “Overcome”. Lights flashed into action and a smiling Mvula was revealed at the microphone stand with a keyboard-guitar, surrounded by a dynamic backing band. “Keep your head up, carry on,” she sang over fast funk (the recorded version features Nile Rodgers), which twisted midway through into a handsome devotional.
Such shifts are common in her songs, which make imaginative digressions between neo-soul, psychedelic jazz and symphonic pop, a demanding soundtrack that was impeccably negotiated on stage. A double-bassist provided the backing for old track “Father Father”, a beautifully sung number based around a lullaby melody, a recurrent musical motif. A synth player recreated her new album’s orchestral arrangements, played on record by the London Symphony Orchestra (Mvula has a degree in classical composition).
Three backing singers were kept busy, a harmonising chorus to Mvula’s lead vocal. Her voice was powerful, with a depth and presence reminiscent of Amy Winehouse, an affinity heightened by Winehouse’s drummer Troy Miller behind her as bandleader.
“If I fall, let me fall,” she sang at one point, as though willing herself along a tightrope. Having spoken in the past of suffering stage fright, she appears to have overcome it by giving her live performances a spontaneous, unplanned aspect.
There was much between-song talk, which was charming, and a habit of playing songs again at whim, which was rather more trying. The backstage voice in her earpiece warning her of overrunning increasingly distracted her, and the finale of two songs she had already played robbed the set of momentum at a crucial juncture. Under different circumstances I can imagine her putting on a sensational show.