Let’s make one thing clear: Harleighblu’s debut album, last year’s Forget Me Not, is a fantastic listen. The instrumentation is crisp, the songwriting masterful, and the leading lady’s voice a force of enough emotional potency to make Emeli Sande shake in her platform shoes. Look here for the seamless marriage of electronic and flesh-and-blood feel that defines ‘neo-soul’. The influence of neo-soul’s first lady Erykah Badu looms large through the record’s understated beauty. Harleighblu is yet another stellar discoveriy by Brighton’s Tru Thoughts label, counting Bonobo and Hidden Orchestra as former label-mates. However, it remains a sad fact that, for reasons largely beyond the control of anyone on stage, her performance at the Cellar largely failed to live up to the album’s production.
I arrive just as openers Red Soul Brigade, are finishing up their soundcheck. What I hear sounds incredibly promising, and they don’t disappoint. Once they kick off, a couple of minor rhythmic stumbles barely matter amongst a set of hip-shaking original funk songs and well-chosen covers. Whilst some of these covers seem almost inevitable (I saw ‘Play That Funky Music’ coming a mile off, and Cee Lo Green’s ‘F**k You’, strictly not the PG version), it’s the energy and enthusiasm frontman James Doherty brings to the songs that stops these covers becoming soulless reproductions.
What he may lack in high notes (it doesn’t take a genius to work out why there’s no James Brown in their repertoire) he makes up for in charisma and audience interaction. This, combined with the band being as tight as a particularly well-tuned drum, makes the Red Soul Brigade an ideal party act (future College Ball committees, heads up). The final song in the set, an original with an irresistible hook, leads to them being called on for an encore (a first, in my knowledge, for an opening act); when this encore turns out to be Kool and the Gang’s ‘Jungle Boogie’, there isn’t a pair of still feet in the room. As if this isn’t enough, they’ve got a song about Summertown.
With the energy in the room still palpable, it’s up to the headliner to keep it simmering. It’s therefore tragic that tonight Harleighblu falls flat. To be fair, she and her band had a hell of a day: their car broke down on the lengthy journey from her native Nottingham, and technical difficulties delay the beginning of the set. Somewhat surprisingly, they’re using an electric drum sampler as opposed to a live kit. Initially, it’s clear that this doesn’t throw her off; Harleighblu is an enthralling performer, combining stratospheric vocal prowess with an almost theatrical delivery of her lyrics. Her warm interaction with the audience stops her becoming a stereotypical ‘icy’ soul diva. But the fact remains that, on the album, the ballsy stomp of ‘Casanova’ triggered mental images of the smoke of speakeasies penetrated by a visceral voice and the blaze of horns, whereas here, the relative lack of live instrumentation reduces the cracking snare to a drum loop best described as anaemic. This is the problem with tonight’s performance; it’s practically crying out for a live drummer. The gig also suffers from simply not being loud enough, particularly in the case of the bass guitar, which has to be turned up halfway through the set. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a decrease in volume between support and headline act; it took me a good two minutes to even recognise the album’s standout track, bitter ballad ‘Let Me Be’. However, as the band walk offstage without the encore that was afforded to their opening act, we can’t blame Harleighblu herself for this disappointment, nor her band. The combination of foul-ups from the internal mixing and the sound desk completely takes the album’s teeth out.