When we picked this year’s Ones To Watch list we really struck gold, as proven by this week's Borderline show featuring two of our picks on the same bill; magical harmonies from The Staves, and the musical majesty of Lianne La Havas.
2012 has already been a phenomenal year for them. The Staves have toured the US and secured a tour with Michael Kiwanuka, while Lianne La Haves is playlisted on 6Music and booked to play the Southbank Centre, all thanks to Londonist of course.
But tonight’s show isn’t simply a dress rehearsal for mainstream Valhalla, it’s a celebration of genuine talent, laid bare to an expectant and volatile central London audience.
Not that The Staves have anything to feel threatened by as the sisters’ triplicate harmonies soon diffuse any doubts, possibly helped along by the iced buns and whisky which came to their rescue during the previous day's snowy video shoot. This bantered confession is the first revelation; the sisters are really funny and just like any other young women, shunning the expected stoicism of family based acoustica.
Although the ethereal delicacy of Mexico cuddles the packed venue with its simple lyrical melody, there’s a liquor swigging edge. They’re not merely nice sisters singing ditties — there’s a down to earth Watford drawl amid the beauty of Icarus’ ebbing harmonies, giving a natural credibility which folk often lacks.
To brand them folk is unfair as their togetherness puts you in mind of a Mid-West dusty plain where they've no one else but each other, yet they refuse to get drawn in to a Nebraskan cliché. This American edge, highlighted by the occasional use of electric guitars and set-closing family acapella, gives The Staves a pedestal outside the parsley and sage paradigm, securing a broad appeal.
It’s fitting how Radio 2's Folk Awards are taking place across town on the same night, as The Staves are sure to be contenders next year. But tonight they’re raw, risky and exciting in a tiny Soho basement glowing from a phenomenal performance, which belittles the inevitable First Aid Kit comparisons.
Lianna La Havas also eschews the female singer songwriter story-board by thrusting forth sheer musicianship. For such a young and dainty presence she uses her guitar as though she’s Bert Jansch. Her finger picking surpasses anything at the London Guitar Festival, but when combined with an immensely soulful voice it’s clear La Havas is a performer par excellence.
La Havas is able to play herself what lesser singers need two other musicians to achieve; such is the quality of her Prince-like talents. She’s wise enough to change her focus when needed such as on forthcoming single Forget, which relies on a rhythmic stomp and Amazonian cries rather than intricacy and sounds incredible for it.
There are flaws in La Havas’ set. She falls into the warbling diva trap on Gone and a dull Jill Scott cover. These forays into the mainstream are forgivable, however, as she quickly restores her jazzy Billie Holiday-esque skills, which on For Unusual border on drum and bass.
Encoring with an awkward song about a sugar daddy, shows she’s not quite at her full potential yet, but this will come with a more refined set. And it was always going to be tough surpassing the truly exceptional Staves.