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REVIEW: Lonnie Holley at Cafe Oto

Lonnie Holley at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Lonnie Holley
(Cafe Oto, 12 November 2016; night 2 of 2-day residency; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Lonnie Holley is one of life’s outsider artists with a dedicated insider following. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, after a troubled and chaotic early life he discovered his talents for a wide range of expression and has combined roles of artist, performer and musician in deeply personal and idiosyncratic ways. His art has been shown in major museums, including a retrospective at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, and he was invited to perform at the ATP festival curated by Deerhunter.

Every one of Holley’s performances is unique, it was explained before he started his set at a sold out Café Oto with each song composed on the spot and never repeated. It is pure improvisation.

On stage he alternated between the grand piano and his own electric keyboard, from which he summoned a touch of Sun Ra’s mystical outer space electronic tones. His rich vocal delivery and melodic substrate had roots in soul and gospel and the phenomenon of speaking in tongues.

Holley’s words encapsulated a disarmingly fresh and engagingly naive outlook – pearls of wisdom – typically ascribed to the ‘idiot savant’, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘a person who is extremely unworldly but displays natural wisdom and insight’ – shaped with a songsmith’s intuition.

The warmth of his personality and his natural talents are the focus of his appeal, and the attention and respect accorded to him by the hip Dalston audience.

A flush of optimism ran through the spontaneous lyrics, notwithstanding the odd oblique, humorous reference to the electoral outcome. ‘Someone asked me to sing about ree-ali-tee’ – which he did – on his own terms. He dropped in a spot of light whistling, too, alongside floating piano phrases, and a fondness for London was charmingly articulated as he turned round the well-known nursery rhyme to sing, ‘London Bridge is standing strong!’

Earlier, Tom James Scott impressed with his quiet minimalism on piano.

LINK: Video about Lonnie Holley in Norway

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