Yoshi's San Francisco
Sept. 14, 2013
Better than: A nineteenth straight hour of professional football.
There is no quick or convenient way to comprehend the British songwriter Laura Mvula. Her debut album, Sing to the Moon, which came out last spring, is a boisterous and at times perplexing work -- a tightly woven braid of technical audacity and raw emotion. It's the sort of album that feels foreign at first, then reveals its warmth and brilliance in small blips. If it requires some decoding, that's only because there is so much packed in, smoothed out, and presented (a little misleadingly) as "pop."
Given just how much thinking the album requires, one might assume that Mvula would struggle to do its many shapes and contours justice in a live setting. She does not. In fact, the ease with which she skips from doleful to chipper to fiery suggests that her truest, purest self is on display here tonight. Live performance, we learn in one ruefully short hour, is her way of reconciling the very paradoxes that underscore her music; she is all the things she sings about, in real time.
Take, for example, "Flying Without You," a rollicking march that examines unrequited love's sharpest edges. Rather than bookending the song with solemn declarations, she first introduces it by asserting, sarcastically, that she's over the relationship. Then the song itself, nakedly confessional and insistent: "He was a boy in love/just not with me/I did not see/How hard it would be/To love alone/Without another/Crushed my heart/I fell into pieces." Then, a joke to cap it all off: "I notice you're clapping along in seven time," she says to the audience. "So...wow. We've got to step it up." Mvula's quick tone switches were not so much jarring as they are envy-inducing. Who what other performers can summon such angst, loose it on a crowd, then giggle about it afterwards?
The moments of music theory nerdspeak go on to establish themselves as motifs, by the way. Before the band launches into "Green Garden," the glockenspiel-driven two-step that's probably the closest thing on the album to a "hit," Mvula delivers a quick advisory. "We have a song that only requires you to clap on two and four," she says. "In the U.K., we have trouble with that."
And speaking of music nerds, Mvula's band, which comprises a cellist, violin player, drummer, bassist and harp player (Mvula plays electric piano on some songs, too), approaches the compositions with the unmistakable, humorless perfectionism that's honed at prestigious conservatories. Each performer wields his or her instrument with an effortless grace, and the harmonies -- five-part, and stunning, and undoubtedly rehearsed with a macabre degree of rigor -- aren't so much sung as they are slathered on us, like a cube of butter on hot toast.
The self-deprecation continues (before "Father, Father," the album's most heart-twisting track, she jokes that she "should have a drink before this song"). But as the band scorches along, it becomes clear that Mvula's humor is only half of the full experience here. When she buckles down, her voice becomes deep and potent and flexible as a slingshot's band. She becomes something entirely different, transcendent. She stares past the crowd, and past herself, pulling her stories from some place only she can see and access. It becomes clear that this fugue of aching performative intensity is just as crucial as all the joking. The humor is not for us; it is for her. It's there to facilitate her re-entry.
That's one theory, at least. As the set nears its conclusion, she takes yet another opportunity to tease the crowd, this time calling out the cowards who failed to sing along with an earlier medley that slipped sneakily into Bob Marley's "One Love" (Side note: This reporter is convinced, thanks in no small part to Laura Mvula, that covers of "One Love" are back on the table after two decades of unacceptable, bum-ass lameness.). "That's Alright," which ends the set, is bouncy, meticulous and beautifully executed. Sung with Mvula's forceful voice, the song's chorus -- "Who made you the center of the universe?" -- feels like an incomplete question. Which of her universes are we in, exactly?
Travel itinerary to Laura Mvula:
7:15: Leave East Bay to make it to Yoshi's by 8 p.m.
7:20 - 8:23 sit in traffic on Bay Bridge, whining and texting
8:34: Find parking on Fillmore (more whining and texting)
8:45: Order hot fudge sundae