Nitin Sawhney is not one for the spotlight. Sitting stage right at the Royal Albert Hall, playing wondrous melody lines on his acoustic guitar as a series of singers belt out lead vocals next to him, he looks like just another member of the band; in reality, he is so much more.
The Anglo-Indian polymath – Sawhney's an accomplished actor, DJ and composer as well as a world-class musician and songwriter – has surrounded himself with unquestionably talented players, each of whom has to work hard simply to keep up. Sawhney's music is complex, detailed and sometimes experimental, incorporating elements of traditional Indian music, jazz, classical, funk and soul. Despite often being facilely labelled under world music, Sawhney's sound is progressive and hugely varied, the only constant being the gorgeous thrum of his guitar.
This inherent variation is what makes tonight's show so memorable. The personal lyrics of "Confessions" are counterbalanced by the emphatic spoken-word intro to "The Conference"; the Santana-sprinkled guitar of "Distant Dreams" offset by the rustic charm of "Kite". The musical talent on display is at times baffling, and no matter which of the parade of vocalists is at the microphone, the standard seldom slips. Special guest-singer Natty gets the warmest reception, and his two-song cameo is perhaps the highlight of the show. His half-rap, half-reggae vocals are a perfect match for Sawhney's musical blend, combining an almost poetic delivery in the verses with a powerful immediacy at the songs' climaxes. The lyrically haunting "Days of Fire" and joyous "Taste the Air" may be stylistically disparate, but both profit from the Natty-Sawhney combination.
Sawhney closes with the piece he was commissioned to write for the Albert Hall's impossibly huge pipe organ. It daringly mixes electronica with classical to powerful effect, and serves as a fitting finale to the show, Sawhney conducting the entire piece while simultaneously providing additional percussion with incredible facility. A sweeping, challenging piece played expertly by James Taylor, it's another reminder of just how gifted Sawhney is. As he humbly thanks the audience for their standing ovation, however, it's obvious he'd never admit it himself.