On Saturday 22nd April I was lucky enough to be able to continue my good fortune of seeing great acts live by catching Marlena Shaw, soul legend, live at the Wardrobe jazz club in Leeds. As part of the Fuse Leeds gig series, it was a one night only affair, and she only had a few gigs left before leaving the UK.
For those of you who don’t know, Marlena Shaw has long been labeled as the defninition of a soul diva, and after hearing her live I wouldn’t hesitate to agree. Her most famous songs include California Soul (used in the remake of the Italian Job movie), Woman of the Ghetto (a 10 minute long stunner, that grips you with both musical talent and potent lyrics) and Mercy Mercy Me, covered by Simply Red.
As ever with a long awaited live at like Marlena Shaw, the atmosphere was built up in the club by a funky/soulful DJ set, including some tracks by Otis Reading who I hadn’t listened to in a while so that made a nice trip down memory lane while we were waiting for the show to start. Coupled with a round of drinks costing £10.40, I was all ready for some serious soul by the time Marlena came on stage.
As soon as the band started to come on stage and set up their instruments, there was a rush for the dancefloor. What had previously been a collection of a few keen people suddenly became a mass mob wanting to be as close the action as possible. I already had a vantage point though so it was all good – thats why arriving at a gig early and getting a few drinks in is the best plan; you get the best spot in the club.
Marlena’s first number was a get you in the mood type of track, a real foot tapping song that needed no introduction. Her voice is one of those silky types, that is easy and enjoyable to listen to almost no matter what the song is about. She has this wonderful habit of “filling in the gaps” in songs that have a story line by simply talking over the top of the bands solo parts. While this might sound rude, it is very much in-place at one of her gigs, and really sounded great. Her first introduced track was feel like making love, and what really grabbed me was the way she included everyone. I normally hate live love songs because you often feel like there’s a big party and you weren’t invited, but she approached a great song from so many different angles and had the band to back her up.
The musicians she had along with her were quite simply superb, in particular the saxophonist who not only played the sax to a standard I hadn’t previously thought possible, but was also very talented on the flute. The lead guitarist joined Marlena for the introduction to a blues song, and it really brought out some hidden qualities in Marlena Shaw’s music; that many of her soulful songs can be listened to on two levels, and if you take the underlying one, many of her songs can be listened to as a blues.
As the evening progressed on and the crowd got more into the music, she started to play some of her more well known tracks, at and it really started to bring people together. You suddenly got this feeling that it didn’t matter who was from where in the room, or what they did outside of coming to live music, what mattered was the fact we all stood together in enjoying and savouring the superb sound of Marlena Shaw’s vocals. An artist who picks up on this feeling is something special, and to be told at this precise moment “I want you to get together!”, made it all feel that much more special.
Then came what I must confess I had been waiting for the whole night, the first few bars of Woman of the Ghetto. We all went crazy, surging forward towards the stage to get that much closer to what we knew would be an amazing 10 minutes or so. For me, this song has always epitimised Marlena Shaw, her music and the way she expresses her feelings about the world around her, not only that but it has always rung true with me. She started slow, but soon picked up the pace and we were all singing along with the music, I can only describe it as being on another level. I have played this song before in the studios of URY, and never thought it could possibly sound so many orders of magnitude better on a live stage, but it did.
At the end of the song, the band started leaving the stage! We just weren’t ready to be cut off from such a superb performance and we all started screaming for more. I didn’t think many of the people there had much voice left considering the cheers from the rest of the night, but we found them, and found them some more when the band came back onto the stage followed by Marlena Shaw; she picked up the microphone and then I knew what she was going to play, I just knew it, and we all went mad some more as the first words and superb backing music to California Soul washed off the edge of the stage and into the crowd “Like a sound you hear that lingers in your ear, that you can’t forget from sunrise to sunset, YEAH! California Soul!”
As we all left the club after that amazing number finished, those were the words I had in my head, in fact, I still have them there now, and I think it will take quite a few sunrises and sunsets before they even start to dwindle, then there is always my CD collection.
Rating the gig is impossible. Marlena Shaw is a living legend, and one that is not to be missed. If you even *think* you like soul, you’ll love seeing Marlena Shaw live. The feel-good factor during and afterwards is worth every penny of your money and every second of your time that you spend in order to go.