Barbican Centre, London
By Kevin Le Gendre
‘Multi-media art’ may seem an almost passé term in an age where smart phones enable videos to be shared as easily as voice mails are sent. Yet Carleen Anderson’s Cage Street Memorial is a grand audio-visual work in which that art and artistry are at a premium. While 2016’s CD of the same name considerably raised the singer’s profile, this performance is an important and more complete conceptual statement insofar as it casts Anderson’s own journey against the wider pictorial backdrop of both the civil rights struggle in her native America and immigration to her adopted UK. The rushing and parting waters projected on a giant screen behind her have a mystic, quasi-biblical overtone, and the possible sub-text of their movement – of natural and human resources – soon gives way to family history. Photos of Anderson’s elders, as well as images of ‘freedom riders’, placards of ‘I Am A Man’ held proudly aloft, are part of a collage that also features footage of Anderson on stage with James Brown or in a studio with Paul Weller. Cultural, political and musical odysseys vividly coalesce.
For those who have followed Anderson since the early ‘90s when she relocated to London from her native Texas and helped Young Disciples to write a defining chapter in British music, she remains a key figure in transatlantic creative exchange, and the concert underlines as much. While the visuals provide a thought-provoking narrative to the evening the song-cycle presented by Anderson and her quartet is nothing less than outstanding. Cage Street Memorial is a sweeping extended work in which spoken word interludes preface compositions where the singer broaches personal and universal themes of enormous magnitude, from struggle to resistance to redemption.
The results are memorable, first and foremost because Anderson’s voice, moving between one straight mic and one for chorus effects, is stupendous. Her unique blend of purity, power and delicacy, particularly in the upper register, is enhanced by the accompanying instrumentation. Orphy Robinson’s vibraphone, Renell Shaw’s bass, Sammy Bishai’s violin and, crucially, Crispin Robinson’s percussion, strike a similar balance, in terms of the overall weight of the sound. The absence of a kit drum lends a certain airiness to the textural blanket around Anderson’s voice, though Robinson’s use of a cajon and cymbal brings both a backbeat and swing to the arrangements when necessary. While the gospel surge of The Trilogy Of Wade In The Water is irresistible pieces such as Deliverance and All That Glitters really highlight the nobility of Anderson’s melodies, her considerable skill as a pianist and the cohesion of the band.
Perhaps the only misstep in the programming of the evening is to have a support set by Zara McFarlane, which although a very engaging blend of soul, reggae and jazz that has brought the British singer deserved props in the last few years, feels a touch superfluous, given the length of Anderson’s concert [which could have easily worked well as two sets]. Cage Street Memorial is a wholly intense listen that requires no small amount of concentration, and producers should realize that it is more than capable of working as a stand-alone event. Tellingly, several audience members didn’t go the distance, but none left with any scowls of disappointment either.