My nineteen-year-old daughter first played me Gregory Porter. It says a lot about the width of the demographic that it was her educating me about a forty-four-year-old American jazz singer, and not the other way around. 2013’s Liquid Spirit rang around our kitchen for much of last summer, so when an opportunity presented to pop down to the Eventim Apollo (I think that’s what it’s currently called, though that could easily have changed by the time this is published) in Hammersmith, to photograph and review a night of Porter’s Take Me To The Alley tour, it wasn’t one I was going to turn down. I thought it was going to be good. What I hadn’t anticipated however, was that this would be one of the finest nights of live music I have ever, ever experienced.
Things had already got off to a promising start when the support, Nashville’s Kandace Springs took to the stage. As is customary, she walked out to a half-empty arena though that soon changed once the bar-dwellers caught wind of her velveteen vocal skills. Sporting a loose afro of prodigious proportions, she had the look of an early Cleo Laine, though the sound fell more into soulful and jazzy Ella Fitzgerald/Norah Jones territory.
Her piano playing was consummate too, though the virtuoso skills were relegated to intros and outros – never flashy in the middle of songs and never allowed to overpower her outstanding voice. Playing numbers from Kandace’s soon to be released album Soul Eyes, she held the audience captive, but her cover of The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face was what did it for me. It was peerless. By the time she finished, there were people standing in the aisles waving and yelling their appreciation. Late-comers take note: it always pays to support the support.
Gregory Porter entered the fray around twenty minutes later. Wearing a shirt, waistcoat and jacket, plus his trademark part flat cap, part balaclava, it must have been pretty warm up there. But whilst core body temperatures may have been rising, the jazz remained intensely cool. Porter’s baritone is so smooth it could fall off practically any surface and in the early part of the show, the audience were keen not to eclipse him. Whilst many sang along to Laura, if the crowd had been any more understated, they’d have been whispering into cupped hands. This was soon to change though. “I want you people to clap your hands to the rhythm of your heart” sang Porter as a segue into the next song, which happened to be Liquid Spirit – and clap they did, every single one of them. Nobody was worried about being heard above the music now. There was an incredible atmosphere in there for what was passing off a minute or two previously as a very mellow night of smoky jazz.
Porter’s name is above the door, but the virtuosity of his six-piece band was extraordinary and the arrangements in each song were designed to ensure that everybody got a spot in the limelight – and when a soloist got a spot in the limelight, Porter retreated into the shadows; no egos here. The muted trumpet solo delivered by Chris Storr that formed the intro to new song Insanity was fabulous as was the double bass solo from Jahmal Nichols that resolved into a fine cover of Papa Was A Rolling Stone. Fearing for the Apollo’s plasterwork, I figured it’s probably just as well this place doesn’t experience too many amplified double bass solos. The crowd were back in full-on clapping mode for The Temptations classic and they belted out the words with gusto. By now, being heard above the band was a badge of honour.
Another segue, another fine solo – this time from the fingers and keys of pianist Chip Crawford, and we’re into Musical Genocide. This concluded with a sweet “I do not agree… No” call and response with the audience and some name-checking: Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald, Prince… the latter getting an extra special cheer as one might expect. The show closed with 1960 What?, a powerful nod to the civil rights movement and Detroit race riots of the 1960s. An exceptional trumpet solo with crashing drums built and built and built and garnered a spontaneous standing ovation from the entire auditorium. Porter left the stage and allowed this incredible band to close out the performance. It was such an explosive ending, I really expected the house lights to signal home time, but they remained dimmed and the band re-emerged to the delight of the congregation.
For the encore, the front row broke ranks and leaned over the stage apron, resulting in the whole of downstairs standing up. Who’d have thought there’d be such rebellion? The final Act even managed to eclipse 1960 What? An extended version of Free from Liquid Spirit saw Porter depart the stage with the words “Thank you for letting me be myself” and leave the band to close out once more. This time, following one final solo in turn, the soloist in question exited the stage. We were left with drum and bass. Jahmal Nichols had by now picked up an electric bass and enjoyed a supremely funky jam with drummer Emanuel Harrold. They even found time to play a few bars of The Beatles’ Come Together. Nichols departed as we felt he surely would and left Harrold to finish the show. I’m a sucker for a drum solo and I love watching jazz drummers. If playing the things wasn’t hard enough, why do they insist on holding the sticks like that? I bet they’re a bit useful in Chinese restaurants. After a number of false endings, Harrold’s actual close came out of left field and caught everybody with the exception of the lighting tech off guard. The place was plunged into darkness, only this time the house lights slowly did resolve and I shuffled out. A number of us were in reverential silence as we took stock of the brilliance of what we had just witnessed.
This was the last night of the UK tour, but Gregory Porter returns to these shores in June to join in Michael Eavis’ little Pilton party. If you’re lucky enough to have a ticket, divorce yourself from thrashing guitars for an hour and treat your ears. They’ll thank you for it.
Live Review & Concert Photography by Simon Reed.
Gregory Porter at the Eventim Apollo Hammersmith on 28 April 2016.