Neneh Cherry – Melbourne Recital Centre (22/1/19)

Neneh Cherry has had an interesting career; having emerged with 1989’s Raw Like Sushi, with its new jack swing production and hit rap single ‘Buffalo Stance’, the Swedish born singer has continued to take left turns over the last 30 years. 2014’s Blank Project and 2018’s Broken Politics saw her collaborate with UK producer Four Tet and juxtapose the electronic trip hop sounds of the ‘90s Bristol scene of which she was a part with some of the most tender and unaffected singing of her career.

The crowd tonight was decidedly older and presumably many of them were day one fans, cheering at her every movement with the kind of admiration reserved for artists that we truly adore.

The arrangements were brought to life by a band of mostly multi-instrumentalists who moved effortlessly from various percussive instruments — keys, bass guitar, harp, hang and xylophone — while a DJ manipulated effects and helped to provide the beats alongside Cherry’s longterm collaborator and husband Cameron McVey, who also provided backing vocals.

It was the somewhat cold British electronic elements that created a beautiful tension in combination with the acoustic instruments; the elasticity of the natural dynamics and the precision of the technology pushing and pulling in unison like a row of buoys on a wave. The arrangements seemed to bring the recorded versions of the songs into 3D, with several parts — particularly the percussion — that were sampled or effected as such on record being played on the wide array of chimes, hand drums and shakers the players had on hand.

At the centre of it all sat Cherry’s wonderfully earthy vocal, which she utilised with the skill of a seasoned performer. Relaxed and conversational, she sang softly, rapped wickedly, danced energetically and often simply grooved on the spot, grinning with self awareness at the audience with whom she was sharing the moment.

McVey, who has served as co-writer on all of Cherry’s albums, was the sole second vocalist and though his unique voice was not unwelcome, he did seem to struggle with pitch consistently, which occasionally had the unfortunate effect of also making Cherry search for the right notes while harmonising. Curiously this was most noticeable during two of her older songs, ‘89’s ‘Manchild’ and ‘96’s ‘7 Seconds’, the latter of which was delivered as a duet.

Though the few older songs were inevitably the ones that received the biggest applause and had the audience singing along, Broken Politics, which dominated the set list also yielded its most compelling moments. ‘Shot Gun Shack’ had a delicious amount of restrained groove, Cherry’s soulful singing giving way to sections of pure frenetic vocal rhythm, while the album’s brilliant single ‘Kong’ was a set highlight.

It seemed fitting that Cherry should conclude the show with a reworked version of her breakthrough single, and so ‘Buffalo Stance’ managed to give the long terms fans what they desired while bringing the song into the present day, where it sat nicely alongside the many other Four Tet beats that had been performed during the night. As she left the stage Cherry’s smile and love for her audience were unmistakably genuine and the audience, many of whom had been dancing in the aisles for the last quarter of the show, responded in kind.

Written for Beat Magazine.

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