Leeds came out in force on Friday to welcome Akua Naru and her six piece live band to the HiFi stage. Respect is due to the three acts who opened for her too, and for Elements and Bam Bam Bam for taking the trouble to provide a full line up, this was a very small ticket price to pay for such a lot of live music. If you were at the gig and didn’t get down early, you missed out. First up were Dawkins and Wulls, recently signed to the newly minted Released label, and if they’re an indication of what’s to come from the Leeds venture there’s a lot to look forward to. The combination of virtuoso jazz guitar and hip hop beats is not one you hear often, but it really worked, and managed to hook the attention of the early doors crowd, pulling people away from the bar and into their orbit.
Next up was Malaika, a young soul/r’n’b singer-songwriter, who brought a small band with her. She’s got a great voice with an impressive range, and the young backing singer and percussion provided harmonies that were impressive. It will be interesting to see how she develops her sound and the direction she takes from here on out.
The Northaze held the attention of the room and had a laconic stage presence that was compelling. Their release on Blah records, Mellow Thrills, is one of the most interesting things to emerge from the Leeds scene recently, and I’m not sure that the complexities and subtleties of the production translated to the live sound, but they kept heads nodding throughout.
It’s hard for me to review Akua Naru because she’s one of my favourite MC’s; it’s tricky to remain objective when you’re busy being a fan. So I’m not going to bother – I’ll just confirm that it was fantastic. The last few years has seen a resurgence of hip hop artists touring with a live band (Oddisee and Pharoahe Monch are recent – excellent – examples) and I think that DigFlo were one of the best I’ve seen, they were flawless to be honest. Akua Naru is a compelling performer who kept the audience bouncing throughout, and who made it clear that she had a show that could happily have lasted far longer than the 60 minutes she had on the stage (maybe the down side of such a full line up in a venue that was waiting to morph into a club once she left the stage). She and the band vibed off each other, creating a room packed with positive energy. The show covered work from her first LP (The Journey Aflame) and the recent Miner’s Canary. If you still find yourself embroiled in stupid conversations with people who denigrate the musical and lyrical skill in hip hop, take them to an Akua Naru gig to hear how hip hop is jazz, r’n’b, funk, and soul and talks of history, culture, politics and art. It was heartening to hear the reception given to Toni Morrison –a song praising the influence of the Nobel Prize Winning novelist. (Just remind me – what sorts of things do Kiss sing about, Gene?)
After a blistering sixty minutes, and a promise to come back and play for three hours soon, she finished on the anthemic The World is Listening – a celebration of female MC’s – with a adaptation for the crowd “Leeds is listening”. And it was.