There are few times when I genuinely feel that a recording of an inspirational speech (overlaid with ambient sounds and peppered with percussion) as an intro isn’t just an attempt at instant gravitas – but as Laura Mvula saunters onto the stage to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘We Shall Overcome’ in an outfit I can only describe as “Grecian goddess meets tribal warrior”, her authenticity dawns on me and the hairs on the back of my neck raise.
As the band takes us from We Shall Overcome to her first number, ‘Overcome’, her backing dancers set the tone, while the lady herself stands above us all, arms outstretched over her keytar, as the ethereal music washes over us. Wonderful. As if out of respect, the music suddenly halts for her first words, and no sooner than the crowd’s silence gives her voice the room it deserves, we’re off again.
Despite this imposing show of power (backed up by drums turned up way high), Mvula launches straight into her second song admitting “I’m just gonna keep playing until I can figure out what I wanna say to you… I’ve had all this makeup done; I can’t cry” – and we start to see just a glimmer of the vulnerable girl from Brum who’s had her heart broken and pieced it back together with rhythm and and incredible sense of individuality.
For now though, we only see a glimmer; Mvula isn’t done showing us the power of her rhythms just yet – ‘Flying Without You’ from her first album is a show of giddy hand claps as she dances around the music with an expertly displaced melody – I’m reminded just how much of a musician she actually is, and I understand her music in a way I don’t think I ever could have on record. It’s clear she has settled into the fact that she’s playing Somerset House now, and as she relaxes into the set, she informs us the exact place she’s telling the “young man who broke my heart” to kiss – the crowd roar with laughter and it’s obvious she’s as funny as she is sassy.
After a quick telling-off for not seeing a music video she sat in the freezing cold sea for, we’re in for some Mvula-at-the-piano soulful ballads. These down-tempo tracks, including ‘Sing To The Moon’ and ‘Father, Father’, give the space the audience need to hear the subtleties in both her lyrics and her vocal delivery, some of which get lost in the bigger tracks with that wall of sound.
The simplicity is a welcome break, and in spite of Somerset House’s Central London location, you can hear a pin drop, as well as a few jaws. After stage managers whisper in her ear to keep her talking to a minimum, she erupts “No I won’t cut my set short!” and ends fears of a noise curfew with “I’m gonna do my Nina song” – and what a great decision. Within the first few lines it’s obvious just how much of an influence Nina Simone really is for Laura, and just how much Nina’s timeless melodies show off her voice – I overhear “she’s like Britain’s Simone”.
Mvula admits the many layers and influences to her music, however, for crowd-pleaser ‘Angel’ – “I wanted to sound like The Beach Boys; Prince; Bach; Queen – all in one meal!”, and I’m impressed at the first time (and probably last) that I find myself dancing to harpsichord music (!). After earlier dismissing her critics’ claims that her music isn’t mainstream she reminds us just how catchy her tunes can be with hits ‘That’s Alright’ and ‘Phenomenal Woman’ – it’s now that the crowd have broken their quiet admiration, and turned to full dancing and singing, for me the only thing missing so far from this musical spectacular. It’s at this point I also notice that not once has she been tempted by the classic hold-the-mic-to-crowd, “you sing it!” gimmick so many others use to seek synergy with the crowd – good for you, Laura.
Nothing has the audience clapping like firm favourite ‘Green Garden’, instantly recognisable by the glockenspiel loop intro, and Mvula’s clear and only choice for encore entrance. She can’t resist ending left field though with album track ‘Make Me Lovely’, a stop-start number juxtaposing dreamy vocals and big instrumental moments with unusual chord choices – lest we forget she’s more about the music than crowd pleasing.