There are very few objective truths in music, but the status of Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance’ as a brilliant, enduring, visionary pop song is as close to one as you’re likely to find. It was clear that features of Cherry’s unconventional development – step daughter of jazz legend Don Cherry, apprenticeship served in various punk and post-punk outfits, early rap DJ – had combined to create a totally on point rap/r&b/pop hybrid. It cast a shadow on both sides of the Atlantic, being influential in the sound of chart behemoths TLC in the States and directly aiding the development of trip-hop over here. Indeed, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines was funded by Cherry and produced in her back bedroom. Just as important was Cherry’s image, street savvy, empowered, sexualised, she was a woman in a girl’s world – allowing no one to tell her she couldn’t do Top of The Pops seven months pregnant. By contrast, Madonna still had the nicey-nice image of Like A Prayer; Erotica was still three years away.
It was clear that song meant a hell of a lot to the 100 or so people crammed into the room above the Prince Albert, as a riotous (or as riotous as a mainly middle class 40-something audience can be) and joyful sing-along roused a crowd that previously were subdued but clearly respectful. It was a brilliant, if predictable finish. Cherry’s other late 80s hit ‘Manchild’ hasn’t aged as well – spoilt by a synth sound vaguely reminiscent of a hotel entertainer – though having only played it live for the first time in over 20 years the previous night this could be put down to a bit of rust.
So far, so nostalgic. Sadly, for us, Cherry took a self-enforced break from music to look after her children in the mid-nineties, after an unfortunately timed bout of Lyme disease removed some of the early impetus her career had built. She reappeared in 2012 fronting Scandinavian jazz band The Thing – who in a fantastic quirk of fate are named after one of her step father’s songs – on an album of superbly selected, offbeat covers. The confidence derived from this materialised in last year’s wonderful fourth album Blank Project. Less a comeback, more a reinvention, it was a collection of distinctly club informed, modern sounding, electro-pop, dance floor fillers, utilising the expertise of Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and RocketNumberNine.
It was RocketNumberNine that provided the backing to Cherry. Brothers Tom (live drums) and Ben (keys) Page getting the right balance between faithful renditions of the tracks and mixing it up. They quietly and earnestly worked hard anchoring an extraordinary performance. Cherry was simply amazing: her voice was uniformly brilliant and incredibly versatile; her stage presence supremely confident, edgy and in charge, yet inclusive and grateful to be playing to an audience far smaller than she will encounter later this month at the Electric Ballroom. You don’t see performances like this at such close quarters very often.
The show began as the album does, with the naked vocal and minimal backing of ‘Across The Water’, juxtaposed with the maximalist brutality of ‘Blank Project’, which sounded like a menstrual ‘Ghost Rider’ – by some distance Cherry’s most urgent and angry vocal of the evening. It’s an opening that emphasised her unique talent. Other set highlights revolved around the three most accessible tracks on the new album. ‘Spit Three Times’ is a slow builder with a jazz tinge, featuring a sultry yet vulnerable vocal. Weightless – which after a false start returns louder and much improved – combines a bassy fuzzed up riff and a series of superb time changes with a cute lyric about recovering the devil-may-care attitude of her youth. The best track of the evening is album closer ‘Everything’, it’s outrageously clever, Hebden’s song-writing ghost felt in the slowed down garage/house hybrid and Cherry’s voice excelling in a high register, delivering words in spaces where it almost feels impossible.
Blank Project isn’t perfect, which means that a show lasting well over an hour does have some drops in quality. If Cherry were to return to this venue after the release of her soon to be recorded fifth studio album, we might have that riot on our hands, regardless of the age profile of the audience.
Words: James McLarnon
Images: Ryan Kerr