The first time I encountered Curtis Harding was when he appeared on Later…with Jools Holland in 2015. His name was being uttered alongside those of Leon Bridges and Alabama Shakes by people asking if the soul revival would, or could, last.
After seven years, his third album puts the answer beyond doubt. If Words Were Flowers is in reference to his mum’s request she receive flowers while she is still here, rather than once she is not. As an emblem of this sentiment, the stage at Gorilla on Monday night was attractively adorned with flowers draped over the drum kit and keyboard.
Gig-goers were informed on the door that the support act was cancelled due to a mystery injury. This left a gap in the proceedings and the wait that only left the crowd more charged. The band came on initially without Harding and launched into the intro of the title track of the new album. They weren’t messing around; from the first beat it felt as though all channels were hitting the red. I could feel the bass pulsing through me as Harding then strolled onto the stage. He somehow effortlessly embodied his signature dapper style despite sporting a Mike Tyson T-shirt. Alas, I had been hoping he was going to give one of his velvet suits an airing. Nonetheless, “cool” does not begin to cover it.
Harding’s music is evocative of a lot of influences and genres, from gospel to Americana, R&B and soul to psychedelia. One song from the new album – ‘Hopeful’ – is a brilliant and authentic demonstration of where many of these elements conspicuously converge. Wisely, the song was performed early in the set. Despite some rearrangement for the live performance, it exuded self-assuredness with a graceful defiance so reminiscent of early fusions of gospel and popular music. There is something exciting about the clash of the stirring chants and the distorted psych guitar in this song. It demands and deserves attention.
Harding was forthcoming with a selection of songs from older albums, Soul Power and Face Your Fear. The title track of the latter really showcases his vocal dexterity. His soothing falsetto tones melted into the sound of the saxophone. ‘On and On’, from the same album, garnered a great reaction from the audience. The energy rose as the drummer went into double time and Harding pounded a tambourine, singing about “getting into this groove”. By then, we were right in there with him.
When the tempo was taken down for a couple of tracks, ‘With You’ and ‘Castaway’, the room fell almost completely silent (there’s always one, of course). The former was released in 2015 on an album which encapsulated Harding’s novel take on the soul revivalist movement. In perfect contrast, the latter is from his latest album which feels heavier, more hybrid, and more confident. Hearing these songs performed side by side worked. It was stunning.
The venue really lent itself to the band’s performance; the back lighting had a retro feel and allowed Harding to cut an impressive figure on the stage. This is a man who can move, and though he complained that the stage was too bouncy for his liking, he was a commanding performer. It was almost impossible to look anywhere else but in his direction.
Before the gig, I had wondered how the band would go about reproducing songs from the new album live, some of which feel like enormous walls of sound. Part of the answer lies in his band’s mastery of their instruments. Harding himself is an accomplished guitarist and has worked with an impressive list of producers and musicians over the years. It was a treat to see some of them come to life on stage with him. They were so consistent and yet were brimming over with soul and groove. I particularly enjoyed watching the keys and saxophone player lurk in the shadows wearing dark glasses, a baseball cap and a completely straight face all night. It was certainly a band of stark contrasts.
Curtis Harding ended the show with a generous three-song encore which was relished by the audience. Overall the performance was characterised by gorgeous harmonies, joyful and funky rhythms, and a gutsy determination which felt glorious after such a long period of starvation for us all.