RockShot doesn’t do album reviews. If it did, I’d be able to tell you that Jo Harman’s sophomore album People We Become, released earlier this month to wide critical acclaim, is truly exceptional and you really, really should buy it. Oh.
Whilst I can’t do what I just did, I can report on the launch gig for the new record, held in Camden’s iconic Jazz Cafe – my first visit to this venue since it underwent a change in ownership and a radical internal improvement at the back end of last year. Traditionally, this place has bathed its performers in the kind of orange glow that only Donald Trump can wear with pride. As a photographer, I was just hoping that the new management had invested some of the cash in a few white light bulbs.
Elles Bailey was the support and she made her way onto the stage accompanied by a polite reception at around eight o’ clock. Bailey was a performer previously unknown to me, though as she went through her set of bluesy Americana I was struggling to understand why – her engaging stage persona being matched only by the quality of her vocal. Backed by bass and some sweet acoustic slide guitar played by accomplished blues and country picker Joe Wilkins; Bailey alternated between leading the trio out front and playing keyboards stage right.
The whole was a really enjoyable set and Elles left to enthusiastic and well deserved applause. Note to self: See Elles Bailey again. Good news about the light too, though a newly installed smoke machine was used with such gusto that any asthmatics in the audience might have been reaching nervously for the Ventolin.
Jo Harman and her band started their set devoid of smoke (her management had asked it to be switched off), but not of class – opening with Silhouettes Of You, a truly beautiful song from the new record and one that wouldn’t sound out of place on a prime era Joni Mitchell album. The instrumentation was sparse – Gary Sanctuary providing minimalist piano and Nat Martin some haunting slide guitar under an exposed vocal line that made it a brave choice as a first number. It spoke volumes about Harman’s consummate skills and confidence as a vocalist. And it wasn’t only the music that was sparse – Martin and his guitar being stood under a single shaft of light from above. It looked as though he were in danger of being sucked up by a passing flying saucer.
Although the nucleus of Harman’s band in Andy Tolman (bass) and Martin Johnson (drums) is fairly consistent, the line-up can and does frequently change in order that the top session musicians which form the group can meet other professional obligations. As a result, they seldom get a chance to practice together and just intuitively get it right on the night. A wonderful example of this came when Nat Martin delivered the solo acoustic guitar accompaniment to Person Of Interest by reading the sheet music off the floor.
They also paid homage to Bowie by playing a hastily prepared but brilliantly executed cover of Life On Mars. Harman read the lyrics from bits of paper propped up against the stage monitors: “That’s how weird the words are, you can’t learn them”. Unfortunately, the text slipped part way through and she had to sing the second half on tiptoe in order to keep it in line of sight – her improvisational skills almost as impressive as her calf muscles.
The band on this special night was expanded to an eight piece, with Italian guitarist Luca Faraone complementing Martin stage right and backing vocalists Niamh McNally and Natalie Palmer recreating some of the majestic harmonies that abound on the new record. The whole made for a very rich aural experience.
Blues, rock, soul, jazz, gospel, funk, pop. There’s no point in trying to wedge Jo Harman into a genre as she seemingly covers them all without breaking a sweat. I expect she could sing Grindcore if the rest of the band put her up to it. You can’t define her by dynamics either. No One Left To Blame and The Reformation make your trousers flap, Doobie Brothers classic and current single When We Were Young plus Say That You Want Me have a wonderful funky groove and the ballads such as Lonely Like Me and (especially) the beautiful Michael McDonald song I Can Let Go Now are performed with such control and grace that you wonder how she manages to do the loud stuff too.
This latter song was sung with just the piano accompaniment of Gary Sanctuary. It formed the first encore and was delivered to a totally silent auditorium – a level of respect it deserved. I’ve found to my intense irritation in the past in this place that it takes quite a bit to get the pizza munchers on the first floor to shut up. Harman’s voice and this song did it. Respect.
I’ll be honest though; I’m a sucker for the loud stuff. My favourite moment tonight came with a song from the debut album Dirt On My Tongue that deservedly closed out the main set. Underneath The River is a dirty rock tune with an insistent kick drum, a riff that won’t quit and an instrumental section that invariably leads to a lot of flailing hair. Jo always loses herself in this track and I just love to watch it being performed.
Jo Harman and band will be promoting People We Become throughout the year at gigs and festival appearances in the UK and mainland Europe – details on www.joharman.com.
Oh, and did I mention? It’s a brilliant record and you really, really should buy it.
Review & Photography by Simon Reed. Jo Harman at The Jazz Cafe, Camden on 19th February 2017.
Simon Reed has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk