Gig review: JONNY LANG – The Borderline, London, 3 October 2013

Jonny Lang’s overdue return to London was a qualified success. At his best, as on the spiritual ‘That Great Day’, his mastery of the material showed a maturity that makes him a totally convincing while boy soul singer.  His sense of presence was such that he reduced a packed house to complete silence. But on other occasions he seemed to be coasting and at times his band veered dangerously toward self indulgence. Happily as the set gained momentum Jonny worked his way back to his blues roots and a deserved ovation.

Promoting ‘Fight For My Soul’ , his first new album for 7 years, Jonny provided a partial career reprise, but the most overriding impression was that of a Stevie Wonder influenced, gospel tinged, white boy soul singer who seemed happiest when invoking the Lord and sharing his spiritual quest.

He still showed flashes of his guitar technique – wringing every last drop of sweat and tone from ‘A Quitter Never Wins’ – but tonight’s gig suggested Jonny’s career has moved on stylistically His live show is now much more about his role as an interpretive vocalist, as he brought his startling and emotive vocal range to bear on his new soulful material.

The result was a slightly uneven but ultimately excellent show in which his vocal attack shifted from red raw hoarse moments to the most genteel and moving falsetto. Lang is an in the moment performer, who pays little heed to formal arrangements as evidenced by his improvisation on the stop-start rhythms of ‘Turn Around’. At one point, the band appeared to have stopped, but after the stage faded to black, they added an unexpected coda. He also stripped everything down to guitar and drums to sing from his soul on the spiritual ‘That Great Day’ and he really connected with the crowd on the extended sing-along of ‘Red Light’.

But just when he seemed to have lit the fuse for the evening, the band stuttered slightly on Steve Wonder’s ‘Living For The City’. Given Jonny’s new found musical direction, it should have been a defining moment, but it patently lacked spark. Ironically, he later redeemed that brief blemish with his self penned, funky, Stevie Wonder influenced ‘We Are The Same’, on which the band added confident harmonies and clearly relished the expansive hook.

Jonny’s falsetto featured again as he pushed his voice to breaking point on the dynamic ‘Blew Up (The House)’, but then as if taking two steps forward and one step back, the band over indulged on ‘Angel Of Mercy’, which begged the question why after such a long absence did they need to pad out a 2 hour set with redundant solos?

Perhaps the answer came with the following exquisite jazzy cool of Bruce McCabe’s ‘Rack ‘Em Up’, on which Jonny immersed himself in some sophisticated scat singing and cool guitar to bring a sense of dynamic resolution to the set.

A well deserved encore found him in solo acoustic mode and  reconnecting with the blues on Muddy Waters  ‘40 Days And 40 Nights’. He segued into a low key ‘Lie To Me’, which eventually mushroomed into a climactic full electric band finale.

Jonny Lang, came, saw and ultimately conquered but not perhaps with the music some of his fans had expected.

Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos 1-3 by Stephen Fourie
Photo 4 by Al Stuart

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