Give me a choice between a packed-out arena tour or a small, intimate showcase with a couple of hundred people and I would choose the latter every single time. Sure, you don't get all the bells and whistles of their big budget counterparts, but nothing quite beats being up close and personal with an artist sharing their gift. Last week I was invited to just such a showcase by Amelia Ideh from Put Me On It. The event, billed as Eric Lau & Friends, was the seventh in the PMOI Live Series, and doubled as an album launch for Lau's hotly anticipated new album, One of Many. Not one to hog the limelight -- in fact he comes across as quite shy when addressing the capacity crowd -- Eric had invited a who's who of London talent to join him on stage for what was to be his first live London show in five years. Lending their talents were Rahel, Tawiah and Vula Malinga (of DivaGeek) on vocals, Kaidi Tatham on keys, Akwasi Mensah on guitar, Ben Jones (of DivaGeek) on drums, Alex Bonfanti on bass and The PSM on percussion.
Once the band made it to the stage, an impressive feat in itself given that we were standing shoulder to shoulder and Eric had already asked those in attendance to bunch together so some last minute stragglers could gain entry, the album's "Intro" interlude set the scene before Rahel opened the show with "Here." Her light, bright vocals got a little lost as the band found their groove and the audience settled themselves down, but she soon found her footing and showcased why Eric trusted her to handle the major vocal work on New Territories, and asked her to return on One of Many. Rahel may not possess the most powerful vocals in the world, but boy does she know how to use what she has to maximum effect. Tawiah took to the mic next to deliver one of the evening's standout performances with "For You." In contrast to "Here," the audience wasn't given chance to settle of their own accord, instead Tawiah demanded they listen by delivering a truly powerhouse performance that literally filled the compact venue. The band was in full-steam-ahead mode too, with Tatham giving an outstanding performance on the keys, to rapturous applause.
With the first few songs were out of the way, Eric took a moment to introduce each member of the band and give thanks to all those who had come out to support him and his latest work. He came across as genuinely humble and couldn't seem to quite believe that this was his show. He went on to draw the crowd into an impromptu rendition of "Happy Birthday" for Vula, presenting her with a bottle of champagne and birthday cake, before asking her to step up for her solo performance. Having seen the tracklisting for One of Many I knew that Vula wasn't listed as a featured vocalist, but the lady herself went on to explain that as she wasn't asked to be on the album she was going to freestyle over one of the album's instrumental interludes. As the band got underway, Vula delivered another of the evening's highlights, playfully berating Lau for not asking her to guest on the album, and saying he better call her next time around.
Returning to the planned set list with first single "Everytime," the crowd went wild and heads were nodding as far as the eye could see. Clearly enjoying themselves as much as the audience was, the band free-flowed and Rahel's vocals were faultless, especially where she broke it down, delivering adlibs and scatting that extended the track way beyond the official version's three-minute runtime. Two more tracks followed, the names of which escaped me, but both were spot-on in terms of the mood and feel set by previous songs. Eric once again took to the mic to announce the final performance of the evening, which many had already guessed would be "Where To Go Now," the latest single from the project. I was already borderline obsessed with this song, but hearing it live took things to a whole new level. Tawiah took the lead, but both Rahel and Vula were right there with her on the hook and the crowd just could not get enough and clamoured for more. Not wanting to disappoint, Tawiah proceeded to break it all the way down, only to build it right back up again, delivering a real jam session feel to the closing number. The audience was left in awe and would have happily stayed all night long.
With the show lasting approximately one hour, a few people thought I was crazy for taking a four-hour plus roundtrip to attend, but I can say wholeheartedly it was worth every minute of it. Eric Lau is a very talented musician, combining all the things we love about soul, hip hop and R&B into his own melting pot of forward-thinking grooves.
Backed Fronted by a band that not only comprised some of the best musicians in London, but also close friends who share his artistic vision, it really was an experience to remember. I cannot wait to get my hands on the album come June 17th. [Photos: Wayne Thomas]