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Corinne Bailey Rae At Mercury Lounge, Tuesday, May 25th, 2016, Reviewed

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Corinne Bailey Rae and Valerie Simpson

 

Corinne Bailey Rae’s fingers are long and slender, they are somewhere between hard as nails and birdlike, if you have ever seen old film of Jimi, they look like a female Jimi, and when she takes a solo you wish she played it a little more. Or if not electric guitar solos, you wish she’d play more solo acoustic guitar. In support of Corinne’s third album The Heart Speaks In Whispers, the jazz inflected singer songwriter from Leeds (“nobody has ever written a song about it”, she claimed while introducing “Paris Nights, New York Mornings”), who broke through over ten years ago and has had a lot of backstory since then, played some acoustic guitar but only one acoustic solo, when the overzealous backup band lead by her producer and boyfriend Steve Brown, finally backed off for a minute.

At an instantaneously sold out Mercury Lounge last night, there was no backing off between Corinne and her audience, quite the opposite, the affection between us and her was manifest throughout the excellent 90 minute set, one long highlight after another, including two separate singalongs and a surprise guest, one of those wow surprise guests, Valerie Simpson. To claim the audience was into it was to understate the case, and while my significant other, rock nyc editor Helen Bach wondered why Corinne was wearing a bathrobe, the rest of the audience were in the thrall of a very real love fest.

Although Corinne is 37 years of age, has already sold millions of albums and has gone through the trauma of being a widow, and found a new love, while developing her sound from a 20 something jr&b girl, to a dramatic chanteuse, to the neo-jazz soul woman of her current album, on stage she is a guileless innocent abroad. She looks much younger than her age, and she smiles and sings, rocks and dances for 90 minutes straight, her voice is both lush and youthful. For all the gravitas of her songs, there is a lightness to her touch and a joy in the band. A sparkling take on the acutely hip hop meets jazz inspired ecological moved nature ode “Green Aphrodisiac”, loosens itself up on stage and becomes less obtuse and more forthcoming. A little later, Corinne masks the faint hint of past heartbreak in an embrace of the eternal now “Stop Where You Are”, echoing a sentiment that, by one of those strange pieces of synchronicty, Matt healy said at the  The 1975 concert, last week. And like Matt, the audience responded warmly to the thought and to the performance.

Of the three best moments, one was better than the best. Corinne co-wrote the devastating “Do You Ever Think Of Me” with legendary songwriter Valerie Simpson and she sang it with a deep yearning as she scatted and ululated through to a triumphant conclusion, it had the audience breathless. But then Valerie herself came on stage. The last time I saw Valerie on stage was during a very heartbroken Gospel performance, a partial memorial for her late husband Nick Ashford.   That was in 2012 and it echoed in the club as Valerie claimed a kindred spirit with the angelic Rae. And this, they started up the song again,  was the performance we were looking for at Damrosch Park: a releasing of sadness in the joy of harmony, a glorious moving forward for both singers.

But despite my problems with Rae’s arrangements of her material, a full rock band where a quieter take on her songs may have been better, part of it was my own damn fault, standing beneath a speaker near the front of the stage. Even so, whenever she brought it down to a whisper, the songs extended themselves proportionality. Perhaps unwilling to embrace her inner-MOR, and The Heart Speaks In Whispers is filled with songs that belie her melodic grasp to explore tonal shifts and flights of New Age self-healing, there is no shame in the whisper itself.  She roughs them up a little, the drummer is all on top of his stuff, opening song  “Been to Moon” plays with our jazz expectations and leaves us flat footed, “Tell Me” is a powerhouse, and the energy level throughout never flagged. Maybe it should have, the band don’t leave a space empty, there is no safe haven, but Corinne  deserves emptiness. She is a glorious singer, she is like a diva who forgot her attitude, she holds her heart on her sleeve but it shows up in her voice and she can dig in deep without being melodramatic.  It isn’t that Rae is restrained, or holds back, but that she has an English form of self-effacement, when she nails a song, and she nailed every single one of them, she does so by melodic shamanism, she draws herself into the song through phrasing, but she maintains through a melodic glide and dip.  So it is a shame that her proto-Marxist gang mentality, her sense of her and her group being in it together, stops her from shushing them. When you have a voice like Rae’s, it is sophistication to mither it.

Did the rest of the audience agree? Not in the slightest but people are stupid. And I can see why as well, Corinne has that cool kid sister vibe, a little sister doncha sweetness that has a sensual underbelly, she is hot without being obvious and sharing without being needy. Speaking of physical attractiveness, she really is a lovely girl –you can see why all the men were out to protect her FROM THEMSELVES. And you can see why she might be considered a  female chick movie, the way, say Tamar Braxton is considered a  female chick movie, and yet dodging the categorization. She is cute and cool at the same time. All these things, her performance, the give and take with the audience, her huge smile, her gentleness that isn’t weak,  add up to make her an immensely appealing vision. It was that rare performance that was better than the music.

At the end of an evening nobody wanted to see end, and nobody left before the encore and I mean nobody because I was looking, the band performed a huge  “Put Your Record On” –a self portrait if ever there was, with all of us singing along. Nobody has written a song about Leeds, eh? I bet there are a couple about Corinne floating around.

 

Grade: A-

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