(Royal Academy of Arts, 17 March 2023; Cafe Oto, 18 March 2023; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)
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Lonnie Holley played two sold-out concerts in London in March, each to capacity audiences of 200 and at venues imbued with the kind of intimacy which reinforces the emotional intensity that is at the heart of the work of this multi-faceted, Alabama-born artist, musician and performer.
The evening performance on 17 March saw Holley, on vocals and keyboards, play the dramatic, raked Benjamin West Lecture Theatre at the Royal Academy with his well-established accompanists and arrangers, the duo of trombonist Dave Nelson and percussionist Marlon Patton. On the following afternoon they were at the stripped back setting of Cafe Oto, one of Holley’s favourite venues.
Holley’s live performances tap in to his jaggedly manoeuvring life story and act as a platform for his deceptively incisive insights and views on the state of world, humanity and life in general.
Born in Birmingham Alabama, one of 27, allegedly sold for a bottle of whiskey when 4 years old, he experienced physical abuse and racism, mixed with the wrong crowd, having no alternatives, and was incarcerated as a youngster at the notorious Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children. Ever resourceful in the face of hardship, he lived on his wits and eventually found legitimate ways to get by and thrive. Gradually, he discovered his artistic and musical side, and was encouraged and nurtured in his art in the 1980s by William S. Arnett who went on to set up the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, based in Atlanta, Georgia, which supports the work of Black artists from the Southern United States.
Every performance of Holley’s is unique. These two were built on core, hand-written set lists, taped to his keyboards, around which he improvised and expounded his narratives, with Nelson and Patton sensitively setting down the structure and building out the soundscapes with subtle electronic interventions complementing the solid rhythms and melodic essence of the songs.
The venues, the times of day, and the audiences, each brought out a different side of Holley’s soul, rendering a collaged, individual flavour to each performance, echoing in many ways his approach to his artworks which incorporate found material gathered on his life’s journey.
At both concerts, Holley was introduced by Matt Arnett, who mentioned Holley’s belief in the cathartic effect of art and his surprise that anybody would have any interest in his music – ‘the only people who heard it were the neighbours!’
At the RA, he was emotionally moved, and tears came to his face more than once as he sang and sermonised deep from the heart, perhaps with the knowledge that his art – as well as those of many he knew – was on display in the RA’s galleries (*) . At Cafe Oto, with sunlight coming through the windows, he was upbeat and lively, breaking in to small dance steps, sharing jokes, but equally focussed on his music and messages.
At the RA there was a political edge in the cutting America Is Built On Fiction, and spiritual, contemplative themes were addressed in Passing Through Like The Wind and Walking Away From The Dust. Holley’s musings brought out poetic images. ‘Oceans of thought’ had resonance in the song title, In My Time Of Thinking, and his caring humanity was epitomised in Can I Help You Up. ‘That’s all about helping each other,’ Holley added.
Nelson and Patton, a highly respected musical entity in their own right (LINK) , have co-written with Holley several of his key songs, notably on the much-lauded album, Mith. Nelson’s lyrical brass playing and Patton’s crisp percussive flow fashioned a sophisticated, blended collaboration with Holley’s raw, blues-referencing, vocal style, to ensure riveting concerts in two quite different yet complementary venues.
LINKS: Lonnie Holley’s website
(*) Lonnie Holley’s work is featured in the Souls Grown Deep Like The Rivers exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts which runs until 18 June.