I’ve seen Jo Harman perform quite a bit and every time I cry.
This can be quite awkward when part of the reason for being there is to photograph the show. I don’t get tearful because I share a close personal connection with the deep sentiment that a number of her songs convey; fortunately for me, I don’t.
I get moist in the eyeball because I’m moved by the spectacle of Harman completely lost in her performance, feeling every nuance of every word she sings. It also helps that whilst she’s feeling every nuance of every word she sings, she is backed by an outstanding band of consummately talented artists. The whole experience is truly excellent.
Jo Harman is predominantly known as a blues singer for reasons that practically nobody who actually listens to her music can fathom – least of all Harman herself. When she won ‘Female Vocalist of the Year’ in the 2014 British Blues Awards, she politely asked not to be considered for nomination the following year. In fact, her music touches just about every genre you can imagine, provided you don’t want to imagine overt pop or any shade of metal. A typical Jo Harman show embraces rock, soul, blues, jazz, country and gospel music; and we get a flavour of all these tonight in her show at Nells Jazz and Blues in West Kensington, London.
This was a show originally scheduled for Camden’s Jazz Cafe. A change of ownership and subsequent refurbishment (it needed it) at that venue resulted in a short notice switch to Nells – a venue hitherto unknown to me, though evidently not to Van Morrison who plays regular gigs there. I can’t say the switch was a disappointment. The Jazz Cafe has a peculiar lighting policy that eschews the multitude of white lights dangling from the ceiling and instead bathes the talent gracing its stage with light which makes them look like performing blueberries and tangerines. Last time at the Jazz Cafe, Harman got the tangerine treatment. Tonight at Nells, she looks positively normal. Hurrah.
Jo has recently returned from Nashville, where she was recording her sophomore album, a follow up to 2013’s ‘Dirt On My Tongue’. She explained that for commercial reasons, the release of the new record is likely to be delayed to early 2017. This was a bit disappointing to hear, though I’ve no doubt it will be worth the wait. The show tonight opened up with a couple of new songs from that record, so the band was already in full swing by the time we heard the more familiar strains of the beautiful ‘Cold Heart’. I’m already getting a lump in the throat.
There were a fair smattering of well-honed covers played tonight. The first of these, Bobby Blue Bland’s ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ is a big favourite, the laid-back groove and smoky vocal sitting well in an environment like this. The carefully considered set-list had the effect of splitting the show into two parts, each building to an extended tumult. The end of the opening act was heralded by the sensational ‘Through the Night’, a song that really allows the band to flex their muscles and allows Harman to flex hers whilst they do so. She completely loses herself during the instrumental elements of this song and it is a sight to behold. Further lumpy throat time.
Delivering music with this degree of intensity must be genuinely knackering, so it was not entirely unexpected that the opening of ‘Act II’ stripped things back a little. The band minus Carl Hudson behind the keys retired from the stage and left Harman to sing the next two songs with just a piano accompaniment. You really feel the intimacy when she’s engaged with the crowd like this and over the course of fifteen minutes we experience the full gamut of what Jo Harman has to offer. If ‘Through The Night’ was about thrashing hair and whirling arms, what follows shows us the other half of the Harman coin: solo performances of Cat Stevens’ ‘Father And Son’ and Michael McDonald’s ‘I Can’t Let Go Now’; two stunning songs, beautifully rendered and racked full of emotion. My lower eyelids are gaining weight.
The full band returned and the second half of the show played out. New song and another sweet sounding ballad ‘When In The Night Hour’, the jolly ‘When We Were Young’ and ‘Lend Me Your Love’ from the ‘Found A Place‘ EP built to the second climax in the form of ‘Underneath The River’. This is a great riff driven song with an extended instrumental break that once again gave the musicians freedom to work their magic whilst Harman, stage front went completely bonkers. It’s another personal favourite, but then I am a sucker for the loud ones. The band went off stage to rapturous applause, which was good for me because it masked the fact that I was by now sniffing back a full on blub.
When she returned for the encore, it was to sing an a cappella version of the American Civil Rights anthem, ‘Oh Freedom’. Harman has taken a degree of heat for appropriating this song, some questioning whether it’s okay for a white girl from Devon with a comparatively privileged background to be singing an African American song about freedom from slavery. This I simply don’t understand. By that logic, anti-vivisection campaigners would only have credibility if they sprayed Domestos into their eyes. Harman’s performance of this song is absolutely stunning. Jo has worked extensively with Amnesty International and when she sings a song such as this you truly appreciate that she is feeling every word. There’s no going through the motions here, the sentiment of the song practically drips from the pores.
It’s lucky for me that I don’t attempt to take photographs during Oh Freedom. It’s just too beautiful and the shutter release just too intrusive to permit me to do it. There’d be no point anyway as they’d all be out of focus. The tear ducts have finally overflowed and I’ve reached for the hanky. It gets me every time.
And with that, the show was over. Time to reflect on the fact that whilst it’s a travesty that an artist with the talent of Harman isn’t playing in the country’s largest venues, it’s bloody lucky for those of us that like this kind of thing that for the time being at least, she isn’t. It was a true privilege to witness such a performance up close and the intimacy that she shared with the audience was a joy to behold.