The Mercury Prize is always hotly anticipated. It’s the award that pits the popular with the obscure, the electric versus the eclectic, jazz against prog. Everyone knows the deal by now – there will be the trendy choice, the underdog, the complete unknown… but who wins is always a bit of a surprise.
At this, the first of four Barclaycard Mercury Prize Albums of the Year Live shows at London’s lovely St Luke’s – an open plan church with vast windows and superb acoustics – three of the shortlisted acts take to the stage to play an impressive number of their songs. This isn’t just a snippet, but pretty much a fourty-five-minute set from each.
Tonight, it’s Lianne La Havas, Field Music and Jessie Ware.
While one of these artists has been around for a few years, it’s the ladies that are probably best known.
The night starts with the sweet and soulful sounds of Lianne La Havas, dressed in an understated pinny dress and shirt and clutching her trademark electric guitar that sounds just as warm and delightful as her voice. What’s striking is how impeccable and glorious Lianne’s voice is. She’s a little nervous when she starts with ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’ from her debut ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’ and you truly believe her shock at being shortlisted. But we’re not surprised. Her performance is perfect, from the a cappella intro of her opening to the hand claps and intricate picking of her last song, the album’s title track. The nerves have definitely disappeared when she performs ‘Forget’, belting out an almighty note that echoes off the church walls. It’s faultless.
Her songs show her wit and her influences from blues, soul, folk, pop in all their glory, from the wonderful ‘Age’, the heart-breaking ‘Lost & Found’ and the simply superb ‘No Room for Doubt’, a duet on the album with Willy Mason, but tonight sung by just Lianne with guitar.
It’s this first performance that unfortunately overshadows the rest of the night.
Field Music definitely have some fans in the crowd and their XTC-inspired Sunderland prog pop is played with their usual gusto and humour; time-signatures all over the place, intricate harmonies by the Brewis Brothers, peaks of brilliance and subtleties bringing a whole blanket of sounds.
Their shortlisted album, ‘Plumb’, is excellent, but it seems even the band knows it’s not going to stand out against the likes of La Havas’ simple and soulful tunes. Instead, they choose to play almost half their set from their back catalogue. Fine, but at a showcase for your new album… what does that say about it?
There are no complaints though, as heads bob and lips smirk at the twists and turns that make Field Music so special, from ‘Plumb’s ‘Is This the Picture?’ and ‘(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing’ to ‘Them That Do Nothing’ from ‘Field Music (Measure)’. We’re even treated to a bit of David Brewis’ solo project School of Language.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great set, but you watch Field Music to be immersed in Field Music and tonight just wasn’t all about Field Music. It’s like supping a fine Chateauneuf-du-Pape after a really good cup of tea. There’s a time and a place.
Ending the night is Jessie Ware, shot into the limelight with her collaboration with SBTRKT. She’s the fashionista’s choice, making as much effort in her appearance as her set tonight. Her jet black hair, scraped back like a glam lady vamp, femme fatal tux and striking make-up is worlds away from the effortlessness of La Havas and the no effort from Field Music.
Her songs from debut ‘Devotion’ are sweet and understated, but in comparison to the rest of the night, they’re a little dull. Ware’s voice is pitch perfect and powerful, but there’s little in between her soft whisper and full pelt. Melodies fall a little flat and her songs seem to rely a little too much on interesting samples.
‘110%’, a single that amazingly only made it to number 61 in the charts, is fresh and creative compared to many of her other tracks. However, it could be that very antithesis - the ‘80s soul inspired, Estefan to Womack influenced tracks like ‘Swan Song’ and ‘Night Light’ – that sets her apart from the other Mercury shortlisters.
Words by Gemma Hampson