I had this music blog idea shortly after the festival in August 2019, with the idea occasionally flitting through my mind as I wound my way home through the Autumn and start of Winter. It was all but an annoying itch at the back of head by the time I’d made dinner and slumped down at the end of a long day. Fortunately for me, I was moving to Melbourne, Australia, and, even more fatefully, Mahalia was playing her second ever Australian show two weeks after I arrived.
After playing to crowd of three-hundred at the northern suburb Northcote Social Club a year ago, the sold-out city-centre venue full of adoring fans, clamouring for a space at the front thirty seconds after the doors opened showed just how far the artist has come in twelve months.
Adrian Eagle, an Adelaidean by birth but now a self-proclaimed Melbourne soul artist, opened with a heartfelt performance. His soulful and varied voice, going from 1960s Motown to 2010s Chicago rap ala Chance the Rapper, was the real strength of the set. The performance was wrapped in passion and the sincerity of his art and character couldn’t be questioned. He certainly got the crowd going in the gaps between his tracks, offering a very palatable support for the show.
Enter Mahalia. Her presence and energy were felt as soon as she stepped out. Bringing vigour to every beat of a well rehearsed, polished set, but one that felt fresh and spontaneous, the room was transformed from a hall into a party. Her voice was as powerful as the studio recordings, with a perfect mix of being true to the songs and having the appropriate level of uniqueness for a live performance. This variety included acapella introductions (with additional acapellas in-between tracks at the behest of the front row admirers) and an acoustic rendition of 17 with Mahalia playing live. Her minimalist backing band were equally on point, with only a live bass player, who also was in charge of backing tracks, samples and some synth work, and drummer, they enhanced the tracks from her debut 2019 album making them fresh and vibrant, with both musicians showing appropriate virtuosity at key points of the show. Particularly of note was Do Not Disturb, where the arrangement was far superior to the recorded version and gave the vocal melody and lyrics the backing they deserve.
Perhaps most striking of all was Mahalia’s stage presence, a blend of commanding and familiar, allowing the crowd to feel as though they were truly welcomed into the vibrant space, yet never feeling as those they weren’t being delivered a professional performance. This atmosphere was best exhibited when Mahalia, a self-confessed Leicester lass who can’t help but ‘chat a load of shit’, introduced her next number, giving comical and entertaining anecdotes that gave context to the music. There was the two part story that involved He’s Mine and Karma – about how we can all learn a thing or two about our own behaviour after we experience being on the receiving end. The message to men about how to respect women in Good Company was a succinct and powerful treatise on the issue of men who feel a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Consistency and Regular People were accompanied by wholesome stories of how her mother gave her the courage and confidence to be the woman she is today. At 21 (the revelation of which caused an audible gasp in the audience), Mahalia acknowledges that she herself still has a lot to learn, but the wisdom and maturity with which she spoke to the crowd and delivered messages of positivity, feminism and mental health showed that she is a conscious artist who is using her platform not to preach, but to share love and solidarity with people who clearly have a strong connection to her music and her as an artist.
The highlight of the show was before her final song. Mahalia stated that this would be her final track, explaining that after supporting an artist who needed, “the crowd to chant my name louder,” before going back on stage for an encore, she was never going to ego trip over people who had paid hard earned money and given up their time for an experience. True to her word, as soon as the track was over she jumped off stage… Only to return 30 seconds later when Lizzo came pumping over the PA system to dance, sing and take selfies in the crowd that was absolutely losing it. It’s the encore we’ve been waiting for – she truly is the people’s R&B Princess.
Mahalia is next playing in the UK on May 1st 2020 at the Brixton Academy, London.
By Jonny Hobbs