Aloe Blacc, Scala, London
Thursday 05 May 2011
Heralded as "the voice of the recession", California-born soul singer Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III (stage name Aloe Blacc) has an era-defining moniker to live up to as he strides onto this small London stage to begin his one-hour set. But if Blacc is out to prove his worth, he doesn't make a great start.
Dapperly dressed in a crisp monochrome suit complete with sharp black fedora, Blacc doesn't look like the urban philosopher whose music has been said to address a generation disillusioned with banks, greed-driven money-making and austerity politics. And the opener, "Hey Brother", offers little more than a promising vocal warm-up over a catchy funk-laden bass line.
Thankfully, first impressions are soon a distant memory, as the former Ernst & Young consultant – who says he saw the dark side during his time in the rat race and now, enlightened after being made redundant, harbours a grand plan to "use music to expose what needs exposing" – finally launches into the refreshing blend of pop-political soul, Motown, gospel and hip-hop that has garnered his second album, Good Things, with wide-ranging critical acclaim since its release in January.
Blacc's cover of Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" is a triumph, as it takes the song out of its original context to tell the tale of the siren-like Statue of Liberty, calling foreigners to the US only to have their hopes of fulfilling the American dream dashed. Blacc's easy, melodious voice is at once sweet, strong and biting – the perfect combination for such seductive sorrow-filled tales.
"Miss Fortune" and "Politician" follow later, both building on Blacc's lofty themes with the poignant yet uplifting style that has become his signature. But it's still the hugely popular single "I Need a Dollar" that elicits the loudest cheers from the mixed crowd.
Blacc was criticised last year for overdoing the number of covers in his live set. He has learnt from his mistake, choosing a notable soul-infused rendition of Jay-Z's "99 Problems" as one of his final numbers – a gritty tangential tribute to his days as an MC before he turned to soul.
An all-round entertainer with an intriguing political edge, Aloe Blacc is one of the most refreshing pop acts of the moment. But "voice of the recession"? Judging from this mixed bag, not just yet.
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