Some years ago, when I was the music editor of a newspaper, I called a number of historians of black music asking if any of them could write about why the audience for new music made in the styles of classic soul, blues or jazz was almost entirely white.
The people I asked, some of them august commentators on African-American culture, offered a few suggestions: black music was historically co-opted and deracinated by the white music industry so comprehensively that black artists just didn’t want to go back there; black music has always been about progression rather than revival, and it is simply of no interest to look back; the legacy of black music has been so badly served by the people who ran the music industry that it is simply harder to uncover (witness, perhaps, the fact the film Summer of Soul is only coming out now, not in 1969). No one wanted to actually set those ideas in print, perhaps unsurprisingly.
A little while back I asked the young black soul singer Leon Bridges how he felt playing to audiences largely lacking in people who looked like him. ‘It’s crazy,’ he said. ‘Completely crazy. It’s not a bad thing… my people most likely be at the hip-hop concert… It’s just how it is.’
All of which came to mind watching Celeste at the Union Chapel in an audience in which I could not see a single black face. Celeste is one of the music industry’s big hopes: just before Covid, she won the two big new artists’ gongs, from the BBC and the Brits; then her debut album was delayed until early this year and were it not for lockdown she would almost certainly be playing big rooms by now, rather than five shows at the Union Chapel. She might also have gained some sense of stagecraft: her interaction with the audience was minimal, and you would be hard-pressed to call her a natural performer.
Still, her promoter’s loss was her audience’s gain: if she could probably not yet command a big theatre, one of London’s most atmospheric venues, beautifully dressed for the occasion, suited her down to the ground and up to the vaulted ceiling.
If you watch the football on Sky, you’ve heard Celeste — that’s her singing the music that trails it, ‘Stop This Flame’. But that song — big chorus, otherwise it wouldn’t be on Sky Sports — is atypical. Her voice was at its best the more subdued it was, smoky and controlled, not a million miles from Billie Holiday, and her set delivered its serotonin hits of euphoria wisely and sparingly, which concentrated attention on songs such as ‘Tonight, Tonight’, which had the melancholy of the theme to a spy thriller set in Cold War Berlin.
If you were pressing for a comparison, I might offer Sade: there’s the same sense of someone using music to create an aura. It will be interesting to see if she ends up with a career as mind-bogglingly successful as Sade’s.
If Celeste wants lessons on how to project charisma, she should give Nadine Shah a call. At the Barbican, Shah was magnificent. She, too, has a smoky, jazzy voice, but her music tends towards post-punk: it’s her tone and power that sets her apart from the thousand bands doing something similar, but with some mopey whiner fronting it all. She was just as fabulous away from the microphone, stamping and gesturing and flicking her arms and legs, somewhere between dancing and bullfighting.
It was her first show since before lockdown, and you’ve never seen someone so delighted to be out. ‘I’m wearing an elasticated waistband,’ she said, hoiking out her trousers. ‘Anyone else?’ That joy was a significant part of the performance because her album Kitchen Sink, which she performed in full, is not necessarily all that joyful in itself, what with it being concerned with misogyny, as she explained.
A lot of the songs were built around groove, rather than melody — percussion patterns, and then judders of guitar and bass — though the detail supplied by the seven-piece band gave them unexpected bursts of colour — the duelling recorders in ‘Dillydally’, for one. But I longed for more songs as dramatic as ‘Trad’, where on the chorus, her voice, suddenly swamped in reverb and echo, sounded like an underwater Bond theme, or the first encore, ‘Fool’, which buzzed and fizzed and stung.
At the moment, Shah has ‘broadsheet critics’ favourite’ written all over her. She’s clever, talented and dazzling, and she wants to communicate ideas in her music. But to break beyond that she needs more songs as brilliant as she is. She noted herself that one of her tracks had been heavily played on 6 Music, with a laugh at how limiting that is. Write something indelible, and she will get beyond that. I hope she does, because she’s a marvel.
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