Review: Cate Le Bon and Black Midi
This is the first year the Llais Festival has run under its new name, having previously been called the Festival of Voice. Since its 2016 inception it has been a mainstay of the Welsh arts calendar and deservedly so. The international arts festival at the Wales Millennium Centre features predominantly Welsh artists and attracts big crowds wanting to experience all that Llais has to offer.
Hailing from Penboyr, Carmarthenshire, singer/song writer Cate Le Bon performed an enthralling set last night. The 39-year-old featured songs from her newest album, ‘Pompeii’, as well as some favourites from previous albums, including ‘Home to You,’ with the highlight being her new single, ‘Typical Love,’ released in September.
Le Bon walked on stage in a sleek black dress and two-inch heels, achieving a feat that few would even attempt. I wonder if there has ever been such personification of enigmatic grace. Cate has been living in the US since 2013 but still chooses to converse with the crowd in both English and Welsh.
The festival is a rare opportunity to see her live on home turf, the fans know this. Few seats remain empty, and the auditorium radiates with eager anticipation.
The chatting and fidgeting stops as she opens the set with the sax heavy, ‘Miami,’ from her 2019 album Reward. Both the tenor and alto tenor sax proudly swirl around the lyrics, punctuating their meaning; making us feel the words as well as hearing them. ‘Miami’ is an uplifting exploration into the mind of the genius that is Cate Le Bon.
Experimental rock group Black Midi provided most of the music to accompany the songs, with Le Bon herself playing a neon pink, bass guitar throughout most of the set. Black Midi’s playing was nothing short of fantastic. They were the spark to Le Bon’s fuel filled lyrics, seemingly setting the ears alight with melodic flames.
Le Bon and Black Midi seem to have been made for each other. Both disregard tradition in favour of exploration of the obscure. The London band, formed in 2017, are said to blur the defines of genre. Its no surprise they were chosen as they are known for their progressive rock style with a jazz fusion garnish. Devoutly energetic and never missing a beat, their heavy guitars sing delightfully in symphonic perfection.
From the Fire
You could be forgiven for thinking that Cate Le Bon’s 2019 album, Reward was impossible to beat. Somehow, Pompeii does just that. Written during the pandemic, the intro of its title track sounds, in part, almost religious, transcending earthly expression to communicate with the angels directly. Then it’s snatched away, to be replaced by the call of 80s pop, only to be ousted a few moments later by the punk-angel uniqueness that is idiosyncratic to Cate’s style. Such twists and turns are normally only felt on the waltzers.
These surprises and invention of expression are refreshing against the often-drab landscape of modern music. This track will not be buried in volcanic ash like its Italian namesake but instead rise from flames like a phoenix. Is it some clue as to how Le Bon felt during the lockdown?
No stranger to flirting with the unresolved note, leaving us desperately waiting for the relief of resolution, giving, in some tracks, such as ‘French Boys’ an angst that is more synonymous with the genre of jazz. You’d think it wouldn’t work. It shouldn’t. But it does and with such a slathering of class, it’s unbelievably smooth.
Her new single, ‘Typical Love,’ released in at the end of September was performed. There is a darkness that is portrayed in the lyrics accompanied by saxophone that aches symbiotically with her voice. She describes a love that we have, no doubt, all felt at some point. The hopeless falling into a fateful disaster, while hoping for the best.
If ever there was a rule book, this artist doesn’t only rip it up, she launches it, kicking and screaming, into a pop music pyre. With hints of Kate Bush and Bowie, her eclectic style had goose-bumps running up and down the arms like electric currents.
Le Bon isn’t just a ground-breaking singer. In ‘Remembering me,’ from her album Pompeii, she embarks on a short solo in which she makes the bass sing with exquisite ease, making it look like nothing more complicated than a butter knife. A powerhouse performer if there ever was one.
We Love You
During a quick switch of instruments someone shouts “we love you”, a rather bashful looking Cate, replied only with a smile. I think they spoke for us all.
During the instrumental break in ‘Home to You,’ while the music is provided in the short term by the band, Le Bon shakes her head from side to side and claps along. Her hair is, for a short time, the star of the show.
‘Moderation’ manages to create complex beauty and texture from bubbling crescendos and devastating diminuendos. Musically it is anything but moderate. Building you up only to tear you back down. She is the driver on this journey and don’t you know it. Making astonishing vocal leaps effortlessly; possessing a refined subtlety to her voice that simply can’t be taught and is rarely heard.
The set ends with ‘Harbour,’ already feeling like a classic, it’s as if it’s been part of my life for years. A witness to my struggles, heartbreaks, and victories. How does she do this? It intertwines the familiarity and excitement usually found when deeply inhaling the scent of a lover’s skin. I suppose that’s the point. This complex intermingling of feelings expressed through mere quavers, minims and semi breves comes naturally to the talented Le Bon. Who is her safe harbour? Who is mine?
It’s been a while since I have really listened to music, but this performance had me truly fascinated by the aural charm.
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