Live Report: Jalen Ngonda – KOKO, London

A real statement from the modern soul guru...

It’s rare to find a modern artist who embodies all of the talent and soul of the legends who came before them. Jalen Ngonda belongs in this rare breed. From the raspy howls of Marvin Gaye to the tender melodies of Al Green, Ngonda’s voice is extraordinary. His debut album ‘Come Around And Love Me’ floats effortlessly from upbeat bops to laid-back grooves with his distinct high pitched tone the star attraction. Hearing Ngonda in the flesh is an altogether more tantalising prospect, though. And having had to reschedule the original show back in April under doctor’s orders, the anticipation of KOKO’s sell-out crowd feels extra palpable.

Opening with ‘Rapture’, Ngonda and his accompanying band stride seamlessly into their groove. With a slick black Fender Jaguar in his arms for the show’s entirety, his presence sadly feels a little reserved at times. His incredible vocals are leagues above his guitar playing, and if he were to unshackle from it, let loose and truly make the stage his own as a live performer, some of the crowd’s moments of indifference – particularly in slower moments of the set – would dissipate easily. 

Nevertheless, there’s still plenty to savour. Ngonda rallies the audience on ‘Give Me Another Day’ with call and response chorus sections. Echoes of Leon Bridges filter through in ‘What a Difference She Made’, with its Stax Records sonic aura. The energy levels soon shift up a gear as Ngonda’s most popular numbers, including album title track ‘Come Around and Love Me’ receive a rapturous reception.

But while the motto of “saving the best till last” might be cliché, this is certainly what Ngonda does. ‘If You Don’t Want My Love’ finally shows what he’s really made of. Its danceable rhythms, catchy melodies and relatable lyrics bring the room together harmoniously. Its extended outro with ad-libs and breakdown sections prompt widespread hand claps right up to the venue’s top tiers, exuding the joy and camaraderie that the full performance could’ve exuded more of. With a few extra surprises up his sleeve, Ngonda returns solo for an old-school blues encore. Filled with B.B. King style riffs and Aretha Franklin infused gospel vocals, these closing moments with minimal accompaniment gain everyone’s undivided attention and undoubtedly shine Ngonda in his best light.

A class act that still has room to finesse his stage prowess, a visit to one of Jalen Ngonda’s UK festival performances this summer would be a move worth making.

Words: Jamie Wilde
Photo Credit: Casie Liu

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