(Somerset House Summer Series, 7 July 2023; review, photo and drawing by Geoff Winston)
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Gabriels, the formidable, nu-soul trio based in LA, have carefully taken their time to raise their heads above the waterline. Currently on an extensive international tour taking in major festivals and a handful of intimate venues in the UK, they stopped off at Somerset House to wow the sell-out crowd on a glorious summer evening. “This is a very special day. Our album just came out today!” proclaimed vocalist Jacob Lusk, after their soulful rendition of its memorable title song, Angels and Queens.
From modest beginnings with an unusual back story, vocalist Lusk, composer and violinist Ari Balouzian and film director and synth player, Ryan Hope crossed paths in 2016 when Balouzian and Hope were working on high-end advertising projects, and were in search of a choir. Lusk responded and when they discovered his extraordinary vocal range, with its piercing falsetto highs and baritone lows, and that he could not only direct the church choir, but could also sing all the parts perfectly, they hit it off.
Their occasional collaborations “… started just for fun,” as Lusk has put it in an interview: “It was kind of an escape from our jobs. We were each other’s safe space.” The intense songwriting process that they shared blossomed in to Gabriels, named after the street in Sunderland where Hope grew up, with songs taking their cues from deep-rooted personal experience and heartfelt musical influences ranging from classic soul and jazz, from Aretha to Sylvester, to Nick Cave. Five years on they put out their first recording.
In 2021 they were playing to 100 people at The Social (London), as Lusk told the audience. Until then they were something of a well kept secret. I saw them in a courtyard setting at the RA in June, and within seconds I knew that they were something really special – with Lusk’s mesmerising vocals and stage presence, their impressive musicianship and expertly crafted arrangements. They were a major draw at Glastonbury this year, where Elton John also invited Lusk to be the first guest to perform with him.
Gabriels work closely with a core of musicians who augment the trio, live and on recordings. At Somerset House they had Max Whipple on bass, Trevor Estes on drums, keyboardist Sam Beste and three fabulous back-up singers. Striking, custom videos were projected behind the band, with an image of the moon floating behind the band on their deep funk opener, To The Moon And Back, which had Lusk, ever theatrical, making his entrance in a dramatic black cloak lined in red with gold edging to match his gold mike. But make no mistake, he has the voice, which in its astounding technical and emotional range brought to mind Luther Vandross, seen live at London’s Dominion Theatre back in the day.
Drawing on a dozen or so songs from their extensive repertoire, razor sharp vocals complemented the roaring keyboards and brought out a karate style jig from Lusk on Taboo. The stage basked in a red glow as Lusk swayed to the measured pace of Blame, while the chilling Bloodline featured a spellbinding violin introduction with the singers accentuating the plaintive lyric “… keep shining till the ocean meets the stars”. Key to the set was the driving momentum of Love And Hate In A Different Time with its disarming lyrics – “Neon lights above integrity … Diamond tears hide the casualties”, which had Lusk throwing off his cloak to the crowd’s delight to reveal dinner jacket and bow tie.
“Tina Turner, we love you!” Lush and the band romped through Private Dancer with a giant Tina (and Ike) on film behind them, followed by a lovingly covered Soul To Soul’s Back to Life that had the backing singers taking it on in an energetically hefty arrangement. They then took a break for Lusk to call the convocation of the now global, Gabriels Missionary Baptist Church for which all that was needed was “love in your heart – you don’t have to believe!” which had the audience willingly sign up!
The simplicity of the pared back arrangement of Great Wind echoed its reflections on life’s transience, giving the lead to the poignancy of their encore, If Only You Knew, “dedicated to the ones we lost”, which they followed with a jamming, high velocity reprise of Love And Hate In A Different Time to take the audience out on a high.