Marlena Shaw, Jazz Café, London

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The Independent Culture

A woman who titles an album Who Is This Bitch Anyway? isn't the kind of gal to worry too much about the rights of chickens.

A woman who titles an album Who Is This Bitch Anyway? isn't the kind of gal to worry too much about the rights of chickens. "I've had a letter from Peta [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals], who've taken exception to the use of one of my songs on an advert for Kentucky Fried Chicken," Marlena Shaw informs her audience, before launching into a fowl-based scat that may have put the beaks of her vegan rare-groove fanbase out of joint for good.

The 62-year-old diva, in London for a popular three-night residency, was referring to "California Soul", the Ashford and Simpson-penned Northern soul dancer. After acquiring cult status following Gang Starr's sampling of it on their "Check the Technique" and David Holmes's inclusion of it on an Essential Mix album, the song found itself flogging chicken wings to the kind of groovy cats to be found in KFC's "Soul Food" campaign.

It's an unfortunate fate for a woman who was playing Harlem's Apollo Theatre at 10, trilling in Count Basie's Orchestra in her twenties and - alongside Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Syl Johnson - pinpointing the injustices being piled upon the black working class in civil rights songs such as "Woman of the Ghetto", at the height of the Sixties. The first female artist to be signed to the Blue Note jazz label, Shaw also spent part of the Seventies touring with Sammy Davis Jnr, which explains her impeccable comic timing as she comes on stage and declares, "It's nice to be back in Japan."

Her set had as its backbone her recent compilation, Anthology, released in the wake of St Germain's sampling of a line from Shaw's Live at Montreux on "Rose Rouge", and the pilfering of her "Woman of the Ghetto" on Blueboy's hit "Remember Me". Immaculately turned out, Shaw injected wit and mature slinkiness into her version of Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Making Love" and the funky "two-stepper" "Rhythm of Love". Similarly, where a lot of other veteran soul singers would have squeezed the emotive pips on tracks with titles such as "Loving You Was Like a Party" and "Without You in My Life", Shaw's flirtatious, sassy delivery belied her age and was consequently lapped up enthusiastically by her young, post-KFC converts.

Her cover of "Cannonball" Adderley's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" was bluesier, but no less entertaining for that, and Carole King's "Go Away Little Boy" had a mature sexual sagacity. But the old-school dance crowd had really come for only two songs - and they got them one after another. "Woman of the Ghetto", with its nagging, infectious scat refrain, is as powerful a Black Power statement now as it was in 1968 ("My children learn just the same as yours/ As long as no one tries to close the door"), and "California Soul", despite Shaw's inability to reach the top end of her vocal range, was rapturously received. The latter - a perfect nugget of evergreen psych-pop-soul - was simply finger-clickin' good.

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