The falsetto is an easy thing to break. Reach too far and a wail turns to a whisper, croaked and feeble. Few master the falsetto and even fewer make it an integral and emotive part of their music.
Here lies Moses Sumney. Billowing in a funereal-black jumpsuit, awash with the soft, subtle light of the church pulpit, he adorned the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall stage. Still riding on the high of his 2017 debut ‘Aromanticism’ – a record equally intimate as it is expository – his crowd was one well-versed in the nuances of his jazz and soul infused performance.
Guest-accompanied by recent Mercury Prize nominee Shabaka Hutchings, Sumney’s set was a detour to the jazz club: an impeccable medley of soaring vocals which lurched from chromatic runs to creaking harmonies, all laced with heady lighting and the impeccable groove of his three-man band.
Opening with a whispered rendition of ‘Don’t Bother Calling’, backed by Shabaka on the bass clarinet, Sumney then segued into a choral take of ‘Indulge Me’, harmonising with looped versions of his voice and the chamber orchestral sounds of violin and streaking guitar. The set delved into the downbeat quietude Sumney is known for but also leapt out into the frenetic crescendos of his latest release ‘Rank And File’ and ‘Quarrel’, showcasing masterful polyrhythmic drum textures and the lower, gravelly registers of Sumney’s voice.
There was also the tonally different insertion of the vocoder on ‘Worth It’, played in an expanded arrangement perhaps inspired by Sumney’s time spent touring recently with James Blake, as well as a graceful cover of Bjork’s ‘Come To Me’, one that dissipated into silence and left the audience momentarily stilled and speechless.
The highlight of the show came during the encore, though, where Sumney performed unadorned: just voice and guitar. Here, he transported the audience back to the acapella intimacy of his songwriting process, casting around his fret board for the next chord and equivalently making vocal runs that leapt into unexpected, yet pitch-perfect, end-points.
A crackling, tender rendition of Amy Winehouse’s ‘I Heard Love Is Blind’ was a brave and poignant effort, while the unexpected appearance of 2014’s ‘Man On The Moon’ cemented Sumney’s dexterity in captivating the crowd. As the show drew to a close, Sumney remarked with dry surprise at his even being allowed into such a grandiose venue, yet it was the perfect setting for his performance: grandiose in its intimacy and unadorned in its beauty.
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Words: Ammar Kalia
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