Heading to the entrance of London’s O2 against the backdrop of torrential rain and plummeting autumn temperatures, meant as a S.A.D sufferer I was definitely in need of some musical healing courtesy of the warm, sunshine sounds of living legend Raphael Saadiq. After all, this is the mastermind behind the ’90s classic It Never Rains (In Southern California) from back in the day when he was 1/3 of the R&B outfit Tony! Toni! Tone!
Arriving at the IndigO2, disappointingly the venue was only 2/3rds full, which could be attributed to lack of promotion, as many people I spoke with prior to the event were unaware that we were being blessed with the singer/songwriter/producer extraordinaire’s presence. As such, the atmosphere was a bit flat in the lead up to the show. I missed the support act, but prior to Raphael taking to the stage there was very little pre-concert excitement, it all seemed to be a very hushed and civilised affair.
Saadiq is in London after a considerable absence as part of The Blues Festival. It’s been a few months since he dropped his gem of an album Jimmy Lee, an expansive and eclectic modern masterpiece, which merges the 70s concept album format with contemporary music sensibilities to create a beautiful ode to his eldest brother (whose actual name was Jimmy Lee) who succumbed to drug addiction when Raphael’s star was beginning to ascend in the nineties. It’s his most personal album to date, and would go on to dominate at least 80 minutes of this intimate and heartfelt set.
Despite the tepid buildup, the singer received a warm welcome when he did eventually hit the stage just after 9pm. Straight away he steamrolled through track after track from Jimmy Lee including Glory To The Veins, I’m Feeling Love, So Ready, The World Is Drunk, and lead single Something Keeps Calling. In between songs Raphael would offer a little context to the tracks, talking not only about Jimmy Lee, but growing up in Oakland, California the youngest of 14 siblings, embedded in a musically rich neighbourhood where everybody could sing and play instruments. The stories about Jimmy were warm and heartfelt, and despite the bleakness of the subject matter, the singer delivered each anecdote with humour and candour, and went to great lengths to humanise his brother who he describes as one of this favourite people in the world.
If you weren’t familiar with the Jimmy Lee album prior to the concert you would probably be quite lost. Looking across the crowd I noticed a distinct split: a mixture of disinterested folks seemingly passing time by playing around on their phones, and on the contrary, audience members engrossed in every lick, every note sang, and every anecdote performed by this humble musical genius. Having listened to the album several times during the summer, I was happy to be part of the latter camp. Raphael must be commended for staying true to his artistic intentions. It would’ve been easy for him to play to the crowd and reel off hit after hit from his extensive 30 plus career, but Jimmy Lee is such an exquisite piece of work seeping with musicality and deserves the live treatment it received.
Thankfully the more well-known hits finally arrived and re-energised the crowd. The singer teased us with the familiar guitar riff of the Total hit Kissing You and confessed that he is now looking back with the lens of nostalgia on hits he produced for other artists and feels quite proud of his achievements. With that said, he segued into D’Angelo’s Lady and Untitled, Erykah’s Love of My Life, Dance Tonight from his other group Lucy Pearl, and of course, Solange’s Cranes in the Sky from the critically acclaimed Seat at the Table album. The final 15 minutes were dedicated to Raphael’s more underground solo cuts before he said goodnight to the crowd.
It seemed like things were just heating up, so we were all expecting an encore of sorts. What, no Tony, Toni, Tone tracks? No It Never Rains, Anniversary, It Feels Good? Sadly nah, Raphael definitely meant it when he said goodnight. I must admit, this was my only disappointment. It would’ve rounded up the evening perfectly. But tonight we learned that this is one artist who marches to the hypnotic beat of his own rhythm guitar.