Date: August 11
After breaking away from the grand and ghoulish Snowman, former frontman Joe McKee has found a more subtle form of expression as a solo artist. While his old band expertly drew listeners in using suspense and tribal drumming as its main weapons of seduction, in his new incarnation, loops and well-pronounced vowels do all the work. As an environment, the Grace provides buckets of support for Joe’s Burning Boy solo album launch, which tonight is attended by a comfortable – for that sized room - number of punters. The stage, merely a foot off the floor, feels less like a forced focal point but rather just a place for Joe to stand. Casually he glides on and off his cramped quarters and through the crowd when the mood suits him in order to sidle up close to a fan as his looped guitar shimmys away, never out-ranking the deep, sombre vocal in volume.
In these kinds of intimate performances, it’s not unusual for my attention to wander and fixate on some insignificant prop or even the movement of the performer’s feet as they jab at guitar peddles, but McKee had me and everyone in my immediate view hanging on every note sung. Even when fronting the raucous Snowman though, Joe has always displayed an effortless ability to draw you in and make all else melt away.
This fact is helped by several well defined staples of McKee’s performance. Firstly, he mixes with his audience mid-song, while still retaining that important sense of intrigue. Secondly, his band – a drummer, violinist and keyboardist - hop on stage only sporadically to add accompaniment and thirdly, he sounds out every word he sings, imploring us to listen. As a solo artist, Joe has slipped into the role of story teller, but even more so, he is exploring the power of words as sounds.
He understands that a deep resonant voice, which he possesses, drawing out every syllable can be just as powerful as any percussive instrument, and hold as much sway as the words themselves. I find myself held up by a lyric early in the set; “You just keep getting louder, while I fall into lunacy” where McKee’s seductive tone shifts suddenly into spine-chilling terrain, and any chance of an easy ride ‘polite singer/songwriter’ type gig is lost. Thankfully.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about McKee’s show however is the complete lack of ceremony. Album launches are typically coupled with a sense of occasion, and maybe a ‘funny thing happened on the way to the studio’ story or two, but not this time. It’s as though McKee and his occasional backing band swept through the room on a wave and we all got caught up in it before being plopped back down again as it retreated out to sea. I left feeling as though I’d had my heart warmed and my bones chilled all at once. Pretty good result for a 45 minute set that featured all new, unknown material, I’d say.