Souad Massi, Marquee Club, London

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The Independent Culture

It has been almost 18 months since the Algerian-French singer Souad Massi performed in London, and tonight's one-off gig at the Marquee Club precedes her first UK tour (as part of the African Soul Rebels package), beginning early next year, alongside the Malian duo Amadou et Mariam, who played a similar one-off Marquee showcase earlier this year.

It's a first opportunity to hear what Massi can do on stage with her songs from the acclaimed new album, Mesk Elil (Honeysuckle), that has won her another BBC World Music Award nomination. It's her third disc, and features limpid amalgams of Algerian and French pop, Spanish flamenco, English and American folk-rock, and even vocal tinges of country (this is a woman who lists Joan Baez, spaghetti westerns and Kenny Rogers as formative musical influences).

Massi and her band have worked together for some years now, and it shows in the fluidity of their playing. On record, her songs have more spaces, more complexities and layers than a live setting - without laptops, at least - can provide. On stage, the five-piece band add a decidedly French-pop spring to Massi's often mournful material, her own acoustic strumming weaving nicely with Jeff Kellner's lead, and the woody, spindly oud of her superb longtime player, Hamid Djouhri.

Audience expectations are high - Massi's three albums have garnered much praise since the first was released in France in 2001. She cut her teeth playing with the Algerian rock band Atakor, and toured the country as Algeria sank into chaos and civil war. She left her homeland in 1999 - no longer able to play music - and came to prominence in France with a career-launching performance at the Cabaret Sauvage in Paris. Raoui came two years later, and sold more than 100,000 copies, a feat she matched with the excellent Deb in 2003. There are generous selections from all three of her albums in tonight's 90-minute set.

The night gets off to a slow start, however, when Massi comes on almost an hour later than expected, and the anticipation of the crowd - there is a large, ebullient north African audience here tonight - briefly descends into a round of slow hand-clapping before the band finally fill the stage, and Massi herself appears, in a blue-striped matelot top, with a persona that is laughing and playful rather than the mournful, serious cover image of her albums.

The first half-dozen songs are from Massi's more subtle, intimate repertoire - such as the gossamer-like "Mesk Elil" and "Deb" - but over the buzz of the Marquee's standing, sipping, smoking audience, her vocals are in danger of getting lost in the background noise. The spoken introductions are almost inaudible, and she sometimes struggles to match the volume and weight of the full band; it's as if she needs the silence of a library to let the more fragile of those quiet, late-night songs come out.

The band, of course, are excellent, and the acoustics and setting lend themselves more to the harder, more beat-driven songs such as "Hjir Enya " ("I Only Love You") and "Amessa" ("A Day Will Come").

Nevertheless, there are some stunning, stripped-down acoustic renditions with just Massi, her guitarist and her oud player, whose introductory playing on "Denia Wezmen" ("The Earth"), attracts some of the evening's biggest applause.

The latter half of the set gets the crowd dancing to a string of hard, percussive, dance songs before a more fired-up Massi slows down for the beautiful "Malou" ("Why is My Heart Sad?") that closes the new album, and a closing, rousing "Ech Adani" ("I Shouldn't Have Fallen in Love with You").

Despite the title, by evening's end, many in the audience already had.

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