REVIEW: Madeleine Peyroux at the Royal Festival Hall (2016 EFG LJF)

L-R: Madeleine Peyroux, Barak Mori, Jon Herington

Madeleine Peyroux - EFG London Jazz Festival

(Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre. 20th November 2016. Review by Leah Williams)

Although Madeleine Peyroux doesn’t really need one, certainly not amongst the packed out concert hall of super fans last night, she was nevertheless given a nice introduction. Coined here as “Queen of the unhurried” - a term I found particularly inspired - and an unparalleled songstress who is a strong believer in the power of song, she’s quoted as having said “Music, song, the voice: this is my spiritual life”. Well, after last night’s incredible performance, I’m inclined to agree.

Her new album follows this idea nicely, being entitled Secular Hymns, and takes a wide range of songs written by a variety of big names right from Stephen Foster and Allen Toussaint (whose recent passing must have been of particular poignancy to Madeleine, as he played in the band on her 2011 album Standing on the Rooftop) through to Tom Waits and Linton Kwesi Johnson. As ever, no matter who the composer or what the subject matter, each song - and each lyric within that song - receives the special Peyroux touch, as was clear in her performance last night.

It’s rare to find someone capable of injecting such life into every single lyric and each emotion and sentiment was conveyed with such personality and conviction through her musical choices, inflection and perhaps simply natural ability to really tell a story through song. Whether you’re a fan of her music or not, I defy anyone to be immune to those languorous, dulcet tones that put her mark on any song she chooses to identify with and make her own.

Seeing her perform live gives the rare chance to witness how natural this is; there’s nothing contrived about her sound and you get the impression that she could simply be opening her mouth to speak and instead melodies come out. In addition to this, she’s obviously incredibly comfortable on stage and has that rare quality that immediately makes you feel as if you’re sitting down listening to some music with your best friend rather than amongst a mass of people watching someone “perform”.

The set-up of the evening nurtured this intimate, conversational atmosphere. The Royal Festival Hall is certainly a large venue and even the rear choir stalls had been opened up due to high demand for the concert. However, the soft lighting and the simplicity of the trio sitting casually together on stage belied this grandeur and instead made for a really warm, personal experience. Barak Mori on double bass and Jon Herington on guitar were both an important element in the success and conviviality of the gig, and were also given deserved space to let loose.

As wonderful and integral to the evening as her band-mates were, however, the first time that Peyroux opened a song simply accompanying herself on the guitar - the poignant Bird on the Wire from her album The Blue Rooms - it was so mesmerising that it became clear just how much power she holds all on her own. It wasn’t until the others came in that you even realised they weren’t playing. She later went on to play several songs by herself and these acoustic versions held a special kind of power that revealed her full talent, for to be able to hold an audience of thousands captive with just a guitar and your voice is really something quite impressive.

She made a joke halfway through the evening that she “doesn’t have a reputation for cheerful stuff and I’m trying to work on that” but the irony was that, whether the music she was playing was particularly cheerful or not, her rapport with the audience and cheerful character made the evening uplifting throughout. The demeanour of the trio as a whole was that of people who know they’re good and don’t feel the need to frown about it. They obviously don’t take themselves too seriously and knew how to have fun with the music, never failing to bring the audience in on the joke. There was a lot of laughing throughout the whole gig and, whilst the beauty of the music and Madeleine’s delicious voice often pulled on the heart-strings, there was a good serving of light-hearted entertainment too. Definitely a requirement in today’s climate, as Madeleine quipped at the end: “when things suck, you’ve just got to try to have more fun!”.

There were in fact many references to current political happenings, with her opening words being “So you thought they couldn’t beat Brexit….” followed by a face that resulted in a fair amount of nervous laughter. The recent President-elect was on the receiving end of quite a few comments and gags throughout the night, with the words of one of her new songs Hello Babe even being altered to make for comic results. In fact, political standings aside, her use of ad-libbing and melody manipulation was really on form all night and kept the music sounding fresh and spontaneous as well as showing off her obviously great musicianship. Even when she played a few of her most popular hits, such as Don’t Wait Too Long or her well-known version of the Leonard Cohen song Dance Me To The End Of Love, we weren’t simply listening to a replica of the album version but hearing new, interesting melodic and rhythmic interpretations, which is what live music (and especially jazz) is all about.

All in all, it was a perfect ending to another year of the London Jazz Festival that’s simply flown by. Luckily though, we don’t have to wait until next year to enjoy another evening of great music and fun with Madeleine Peyroux. She’ll be back in London at the Barbican on May 31st 2017 where you’ll get another chance to see her in this stripped-back trio setting. In the words of Madeleine, “don’t wait too long” as tickets are sure to sell out quickly.

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