Tanita Tikaram, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews
Tanita Tikaram, Barbican
Tanita Tikaram, Barbican
Generous show balances onstage charm with songs full of barbs and doubts
There’s scarcity value in a Tanita Tikaram gig these days. Like seeing a rare bird, you feel special for simply having been there. Last night, in a programme spanning her whole career, she made a strong case to be a songbird of unique character. Her originality is not ostentatious; it charms its way into your heart like a lullaby. Yet despite not inhabiting an obviously radical sound-world, by the end of a long and generous set, she had become compelling. She can’t be mistaken for anyone else.
If we’re brutally honest about it, Tikaram lost her star quality 20 years ago. But she has continued to write songs that cast a delightfully idiosyncratic eye on love and relationships. Her band, led by the folk fiddler Helen O’Hara, and also containing young Polish classical accordionist Bartosz Glowacki, is superb. Saxophonist Martin Winning and double bass player Matt Radford are both from Van Morrison's outfit, and Tikaram’s has a similarly rich, folk-blues backing that suits her emotional warmth perfectly.
The opening was not auspicious. The first couple of songs were just voice and guitar, and she didn’t seem to have warmed up enough. At its best, her voice has a breathy, sultry quality; but “I Might Be Crying” was just asthmatic. It would have been better to begin with a couple of songs for her excellent band. Yet once she was in the swing of her repertoire, it was impossible not to love it.
At times like this she’s flirting with cuteness
The new song “Glass Love Train” is a great example of what she does so well. Taking a quirky and poetic take on a familiar romantic subject, the imagery of glass and train conflict, one suggesting the transparency and fragility of love, while the other implies its momentum and energy, a subtly beautiful piece of poetry. By this stage in the set she’d invited the first of two special guests on stage, and illustrator James Mayhew painted a baby blue train with heart-shaped clouds of smoke puffing from the chimney. At times like this she’s flirting with cuteness, but there’s always enough serious emotion in the background to get away with it.
The term “unaffected” seems a hard sell for someone who became a star as a teenager, and has been in showbiz for the best part of three decades. Yet there’s a bashful quality about her performance persona which seems to be entirely authentic - song is her release, the medium through which she can say things she daren’t say in any other form. So while she’s addressing the audience, and giggling in a way that can only be described as girlish, the songs are full of hints of betrayal and breakup. Her art is her chance to drop the mask, occasionally.
Around the release of last year’s Closer to the People, there was talk of transition into jazz - but little evidence of it in last night’s show. She invited jazz singer Ian Shaw on stage for a couple of songs, but by that stage, the communal love-in was too far gone to perform anything with a cutting edge, and both singers were on full croon. The Barbican Hall wasn’t completely full, but her audience knows what it likes. She got a long standing ovation after two encores. By the end it was impossible not to feel a bit warm and tingly inside at the palpable loveliness of it.
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