A steady element of the modern concert-going experience is the nonstop hum of background chatter. Especially noticeable in small or mid-size venues, it’s an act of rudeness that many of us -- audiences and artists alike -- have, unfortunately, simply learned to tolerate. One measure of the success of Laura Mvula’s Tuesday night El Rey concert was the hush that frequently fell over the sold-out crowd as the British singer-songwriter held complete sway over the audience.
Mvula, whose sublime debut album "Sing to the Moon" was released stateside a few months ago after first wowing British critics and fans, was mesmerizing. She was regal, gorgeous, in glorious voice and displayed an unexpectedly down-to-earth humor. She was rewarded with that rare dividend from the contemporary pop culture consumer: rapt attention.
Opening her set with “Like the Morning Dew” she bopped in her seat as she sat at her Wurlitzer. She set the pace for the evening of bent notes in unexpected places, moments that subtly altered the pace and arrangement of the song as she effortlessly traversed her vocal range from sultry lows to shimmering highs.
She then introduced the cut “Let Me Fall” by noting that it is "a song about mistakes, which is quite fitting as I couldn’t get my act together to finish it for the album.” Gesticulating theatrically -- spreading her arms, fluttering her fingers, clutching her microphone -- then wailing the titular phrase with artful abandon, she led her band through the up-tempo track with confidence.
The evening, composed mostly of songs from the album, seemed to move at a breakneck pace, though it never felt rushed. The lovely and sparse “Is There Anybody Out There” gave way to a crowd sing-along of Bob Marley’s “One Love." An achingly beautiful reading of “Sing to the Moon” was balanced by shoulder-bobbing takes on “She” and “Flying Without You.” Throughout, Mvula sprinkled in anecdotes. “When I wrote this," she said of "Sing to the Moon," "I was trying to lift myself out of something,”
Four songs in, Mvula kicked off her high heels and performed in bare feet until the end of the set. She even remarked that the show was progressing at a rate too quickly for her liking. She joked that she had neither filler songs nor jokes to slow things down. Remarkably, the emotional impact of her songs never suffered from the pace.
Near the end of “Father, Father,” whose lyrics poetically map out emotional isolation and longing for familial connection, Mvula’s band fell completely still as she briefly accompanied herself on keys before simply going a cappella, “Father, please don’t let me go," she sang over and over. "Father, father why you let me go?”
In her recordings, Mvula’s layered harmonies and dense arrangements lay bare influences ranging from the Beach Boys to old spirituals, from classic R&B to various strains of world music. Tucked within the grandeur of lush choral and orchestral arrangements and the percussion of precise drum beats and hand-claps are complex lyric concerns. She sings of varied topics, including unrequited love and defiant, shouting takedowns of racism and white supremacy. Mvula weaves it all into a heady tapestry of extraordinarily intimate and vulnerable confessions juxtaposed with rousing anthems of uplift and inspiration.
All of that was magnificently underscored in her live performance, which ended with an encore of “That’s Alright,” a song in which Mvula revealed she was merely human. The audience tried to sing along but couldn’t. The words coming from Mvula’s mouth were suddenly unfamiliar. She finally admitted: “I’m actually making up words. I’ve forgotten them.”
Special note has to be made of her band. Drummer Troy Miller, bassist Karl Rasheed-Abel, harpist Iona Thomas and multi-instrumentalist Kieron McIntosh provided one grace note after another. Meanwhile, Mvula’s siblings, Dionne Douglas on violin and James Douglas on cello, provided emotional accents that had them in artful conversation with their sister’s talents.