Okay, I’m going to put this right out here.  I’m guilty.  I suspect I might be guilty of something that we may all be guilty of but I’m not going to use that as an excuse.  I’m guilty and I’m going to make a full confession.  So, here goes. eska

Preconceptions.  I knew that Eska had released her debut album on Naim’s record label last year.  I hadn’t heard the album but I did that thing that I’m sure we all do sometimes – again, I’m not offering that as an excuse – I made assumptions.  I assumed, partly on the basis that the album had been released by a record label owned by a hifi manufacturer and partly on the understated elegance of the album cover, that I knew what Eska was all about.  This was going to be an album that you would either put on in the background at dinner parties or play to your mates to show off your hifi system; kind of like a 2015 version of Sade’s Diamond Life.  I bet if you’ve seen the album you’ve thought exactly the same thing.  But I’m really not using that as an excuse.  Really.

So I turned up at the gig pretty sure of the kind of thing I was going to hear.  I was a bit surprised to see that it was a standing gig, I’d thought maybe a little cabaret vibe – seats at round tables with candles on – might have been appropriate.  The band file on stage and guitarist Joseph Newman fires up a riff; a close cousin to Jimi’s Voodoo Chile.  Bass and drums kick in with a jazzy groove.  Eska wanders on, gives a cheery wave and  just EXPLODES.  Shuddering and juddering like a woman possessed, she turns the opening song, Magic Woman, inside out.

Eska Mtungwazi’s voice is an extraordinary instrument.  Capable of moving from James Brown to Kate Bush in a heartbeat, she fuses jazz, blues, rock and soul to create something that is truly inimitable.  Eska has been described as the finest female singer in the UK and on the basis of tonight’s performance I wouldn’t argue with that.

Eska’s band are clearly all talented musicians but there is very little in the way of showboating. Drummer Jose Joyete plays what is effectively a drum solo during one song.  The only thing preventing it from being a solo is that Eska continues singing and the rest of the band keep playing while he is doing it.  What could easily have been a car crash works perfectly.   Bassist Andy Hamill stretches out on another song with a lovely bit of playing that again doesn’t really qualify as a solo so much as an enhancement to the song.  Phillip Achille on acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and harmonica is the only band member to take a conventional solo.  His tour de force piece on harmonica is jaw droppingly impressive and for something so full of blowing and sucking, it at no time either sucks or blows but it does blow the audience away.

Over the course of a dozen songs Eska performs like a force of nature and by the end of the gig the audience are bouncing – cabaret tables would have been a really bad idea- and I leave with my preconceptions blown well and truly out of the water.  This was definitely not dinner party music but if Eska and her band want to came and have dinner at my house, I’m sure there would be a hell of a party.

John Scott

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