Lianne La Havas’ performance at the McKittrick Hotel in Manhattan last night (Feb. 1) was an experiment. “I’ve never done this before on my lonesome,” she explained. Playing solo for an hour for the first time gave her the chance to render her songs in what she called a “different kind of glory.”
Over the course of two albums, La Havas has demonstrated that succinct statements can be as complex and multi-dimensional as any sprawling 80-minute opus. These records move in a number of directions at once, including sentimental, soundtrack-ready piano ballads (“Lost & Found”), sinuous, handclap-heavy pop (“Is Your Love Big Enough?”), fingerpicked singer-songwriter duets (“No Room For Doubt”), guitar-heavy onslaughts (“Grow,” “Never Get Enough”), ‘80s slap-bass funk (“Tokyo”), and bright neo-doo-wop (“What You Don’t Do”). She’s not against electronic foundations either: check out the gospel-house vocal she adds to the Tourist song “Patterns.” Her pliant voice and dazzling riffs earned the admiration of Prince, who featured her on his Art Official Age album, and Paul Epworth, a frequent Adele collaborator.
Working alone at the McKittrick Hotel forced La Havas to condense her textural variation into something focused and surgical: just voice and a guitar, which wafted pointy, circular clouds of notes over an entranced audience. The resulting show was an unqualified success, with an impressive level of engagement between audience and performer. La Havas was heaped with praise and encouragement from the moment she took the stage around 11:15 p.m.
The unusual room where she played helped to foster an emotional closeness: small and low-ceilinged, it was dimly lit by a pair of old chandeliers and bordered by velvety red drapes. The stage is not far from the ground, and it is a peninsula: the crowd engulfs a singer on three sides. This is long way from the airplane hangar-like Terminal 5, where La Havas performed last summer, or even Rough Trade, where she plays on Friday. In the McKittrick, there is no buffer if you fail, but if you succeed, your audience connection is direct and unfiltered. It is a high risk, high reward environment.
For La Havas, it was immediately clear that it was all reward, all the time. The crowd rained compliments: “You’re so talented! “We’re so proud of you!” “Welcome!” Someone even yelled out genially, “how was your flight?” This prompted the singer to reply with a clichéd joke — “I flew here all the way from England, so my arms are pretty tired” — but this too was met with good-natured chuckles.
Audibly rapturous sighs greeted the opening passages of familiar songs — especially “Green And Gold” and “No Room For Doubt” — and at three different junctures, the audience decided to provide the singer with percussive assistance. This act of unprompted generosity is rare at New York City shows, and it was done in an unobtrusive manner, usually by snapping fingers. Even the singer’s efforts to stay hydrated drew adulation: when she announced that she needed a water break, someone yelled, “cheers!”
La Havas drew from this well of devotion at two crucial moments. When it came time to play “Tokyo,” which sounds like late-period Prince funk, she noted that some songs “need a beat,” and asked the crowd to provide a stomp-click rhythm. They happily obliged. She also requested that the audience provided backing vocals on a cover of “I Say A Little Prayer” — a Bacharach/David song associated with Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. La Havas’ invitation caused the audience to erupt in enthusiastic cheers.
Aretha and Dionne have two of pop’s greatest voices, so the song is inherently difficult to cover, but La Havas’ rendition of the ‘60s classic was at once steely and tender. The crowd provided sterling accompaniment, easily approximating the zippy harmonies of Aretha’s great backing group, the Sweet Inspirations. With fans like these, who needs a band?