‘Hip, Hip’ muttered Cassandra. ‘Hooray’ echoed half the rapt audience packing Ronnie’s early on a scorching Wednesday evening. John Davies launched a shuffling, funky groove on the drums hinting at a New Orleans second line feel and ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ felt like an explosion of energy to close the set. The gentle teasing about stiff upper lips and occasional ‘Hip Hip’ had been laced through a set drawing on material from now 20 years of material radically re-imagining everything from pop and rock to blues and jazz standards, so that from the first taut arpeggio from Brandon Ross’ guitar and languorous sigh from those vocal chords, there’s no mistaking whose sound and approach it is. We were treated to ‘Children of the Night’ with a lilting African pulse, ‘No More Blues’ (not the Jobim one – Blues), a heart stopping ‘Wichita Line Man’. The inevitable encore after a rapturous reception for that trip to Clarksville was ‘Time after Time’ with a typically angular entry and the thrill of recognition as the familiar hook emerged briefly and morphed in the stretched vocal lines.
In the live performance, the pivotal role that Brandon Ross plays in this ensemble leaps out at me. He sits towards the rear of the stage, almost motionless as the rhythms and harmonies stream from the guitar, radiating a quiet delight occasionally exchanging grins with Lonnie Plaxico on bass as a locked groove or shift in gears gives them particular pleasure. It seems to set everyone free to decorate and embellish, Jon Cowherd on piano and Gregoire Maret on harmonica frequently spinning out lyrical solos, but more than anyone Cassandra Wilson. She has the extraordinary capacity to sing a lyric as if she’s allowing us an insight into her most private thoughts. The ever insightful John Fordham in the Guardian observes that sometimes this can leave a performance a bit flat. Its a delicate line to tread between introspection and compelling engagement and on this evening it was surely the latter. As I left the club, stumbling into a still light and buzzing Soho, a women next to me was shaking her head, marvelling and saying to her partner ‘She’s a life force. She totally inhabits the music’ Just so! And maybe we’d been made to feel a bit special sharing the moment.