Over the course of seven LPs, Nitin Sawhney has forged a singular reputation as a one-man musical melting-pot.
Over the course of seven LPs, Nitin Sawhney has forged a singular reputation as a one-man musical melting-pot. His knack for throwing myriad sounds (dancefloor beats, Bengali folk, Indian percussion, flamenco guitar, rap and qawwali) into the mix and somehow emerging with relevant, beautiful songs is as remarkable as it is unparalleled.
It has resulted in Sawhney winning a South Bank Show Award; securing a Mercury Prize nomination (Beyond Skin, 2000); working with the Britten Sinfonia, the CBSO and the pianist Joanna MacGregor; signing to a Hollywood talent agency as a film-score composer; and gaining fans including Paul McCartney and Madonna. And usually it is at his live shows, where you see these elements come together, that you begin to appreciate Sawhney as the alchemist he is.
Not tonight, though. It is a strangely unfocused performance that receives an equally peculiar muted reception. For more than an hour, the audience is in hushed reverence, breaking into polite applause at the end of each song - we could be at the Royal Opera House. Perhaps it is the cluttered set up: a five-man band - bass, tabla, drums, guitar, Sawhney on keys and guitar - is joined by five vocalists who change around for virtually every song in a 90-minute set.
Sawhney should be the focus - he is the common thread that links the qawwali (Davinder Singh), Bengali folk (Reena Bhardwaj), soul (Sharon Duncan), rap/soul (Taio) - but he's not a showman. He is shunted stage right, and looks every part the schoolteacher in jeans, T-shirt and unzipped jacket. He sets the polite tone, introducing and then thanking each singer for each song. It is song nine before any real atmosphere - cheering and applause mid-song - is really audible.
Also, Sawhney's most recent LP, Philtre, doesn't lend itself to being performed live: it features 13 guest singers and vocalists, and Sawhney only has five tonight, which means most of the tracks performed are soulless covers.
For example "Journey", on record a collaboration with the husky Philadelphia soulster Vikter Duplaix, is performed live with the crystal-clear timbre of Taio, and it's awkward and missing something. Yet when Taio performs "Rainfall", a song he wrote and recorded with Sawhney, he's at ease and his pained facial expression oozes heart and passion. It feels natural.
The shortcomings of Sawhney's sprawling set-up become apparent when, for his encore, he returns carrying his guitar with only the Nehru-suited Singh and tabla maestro Durvesh for a rendition of "Prophesy". You can almost see the song's mojo reverberating between the trio, making this simple reinterpretation the gig's highlight.
Of course, there were other moments of sublime brilliance but, sadly, the power of Sawhney's live shows has been lost.
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