By Benjamin Lehmann

It's a rainy thursday evening. I'm waiting for a bus to take me to Cargo in London's East End, fresh out of work. Cargo is a venue renowned for its unforgiving size, sometimes known to stifle the atmosphere of busy nights and all but smother the atmosphere of quieter events. Tonight marks the first major solo gig in London for an artist called Z-Star, and Cargo seems an unappetising venue for a make-or-break appearance. In two minds about where my evening is going, I step on the bus eastbound.

As I enter the series of arches which house the venue, it becomes clear that her status needs no raising, and that Cargo is a goldfish bowl compared to the venues she could fill. Four hundred and fifty people are competing for spots in the main arch. The fact that there is barely space to move does not stop the assembled from gyrating hips, pumping hands in the air, and shaking it down to the music. Soon I discover that Keziah Jones has already played in the support slot, a former collaborator it turns out, and if she continues to collect die-hard fans at the current rate, a top-billing for the Royal Albert Hall might be more appropriate.

Z-Star dominates the stage like the lead of a West End musical, a ring-leader, guitar slung round her neck like another limb, mohicanned head nodding insistently to the music. The band follow her every move like an orchestra its conductor. The room is full of the bossa-nova funk rhythms of Driven. Zee's voice, sometimes deep and intimate, sometimes bluesy and scatting, re-tells the fantasy of a sponge girl at the traffic lights setting eyes on a ragga as he pulls up in his jeep. It's a modern tale of the city shot through with the passionate harmonies of jazz, soul and blues.

        I'll be waiting on your 4x4
        to stop at the red light
        my waters are clean
        so your windows
        will sparkle in the sunlight

As on many of the tracks on her new album, Who Loves Lives, Z conjures a convincing vignette, using her lyrics to hint at the ambiguous sexes and ages of her dramatis personae.

The spine-tingling guitar intro to Rosemary's Last Kiss raises cheers from the audience. The piece shows off her talent as a guitarist, adding a Spanish, flamenco feel to the variety of styles she has touched on. The enigmatic refrain "Rosemary's got you again / and you cannot escape from her last kiss" suggests that this is one of the more personal songs on the album, and, as with all great live artists, she is confiding to every member of the audience. The soaring strings that back the song in its album incarnation are replaced by the inspired playing of the backing band, drums, two keys, sax and bass, who seem unusually inspired by their band leader.

Zee continues to hold the crowd, taking in slow acoustic songs such as Emilie's Play, which is marked by the influence of collaborator Terry Callier, and stomping bluegrass specials which have the room pogoing up and down in appreciation. The country and western aspect to her set is an unexpected addition to her soul-jazz-rock sound, but there is a tongue-in-cheek comedy to it as she marches around the stage in her faux-cowboy hat. By this stage, the evening has acquired an epic quality. Moving from the enigmatic verses of the earlier numbers, Z begins to showcase the more immediate side of her song writing, and a more rock 'n' roll sound. The Rhodes keyboard and piano come to the front of the mix, with her voice taking over from the guitar. Hello Stranger is a perfect example of how her voice handles the deeper, velvet tones of singers like Ella Fitzgerald. The songs are catchy, but insistent, and there is a sense of togetherness amongst the audience so rare in larger venues.

As host of the legendary singer-songwriter nights at the Vibe Bar, Entry Level and Worship, Z is an accomplished compere. It is from these nights that she has built her devoted following, meeting her audience and acknowledging the important part they play to her as an artist. When I first encountered Z she was outside the Jazz Café flyering and postering for her gig, and in conversation she was quick to acknowledge the need for artists to work hard for their profile. Given that she is signed to Virgin Italy, and has already written her fifth album, this attitude is quite a surprise. Like her music, Z is modest and eminently human, but highly choreographed, always in character. She is quick to acknowledge the importance of a business-like approach to creativity, but there is no doubt that the business is a slave to the music.

As she moves into the last number of the set, the theatrical tricks developed as a compere bring the night to an astonishing finale. She grabs a pair of sticks and leads a samba-style percussive number with a virtuoso performance on the steel drums. It is quite something to see a singer-songwriter of her calibre handle the steel drums with such expertise. Soon the crowd is singing along to her gospel style chant while she breaks the music down, and then brings the band to huge climaxes with her drums. Two encores later the set finally comes to an end with Z dragging the drums into the crowd as they chant her lyric, hammering out a samba theme to their vocal accompaniment. To my knowledge, nobody has ever moved Cargo like this before.

It is one year from now, and the same people who saw Z in Cargo on 11 november 2004 are waiting outside the Royal Albert Hall. It won't be the first time Z has performed there – she was a guest vocalist at the Vagina Monologues RA Hall gala – but this time her name is top of the bill. When one of them turns to ask if I was at cargo that night, I will have the pleasure of answering yes, knowing that it was this day which marked the long-due arrival of a major talent in the UK. And the album? Someone once said of David Gray's White Ladder 'it's a record which makes you fell better by its very existence', in which case Who Loves Lives makes you feel better that you exist. Full stop.
Matt posted 3 September 2008 (09:38:55)
Keziah Jones is really great! I love what he does... His new album is now out! I really love it, I could listen to it on http://www.deezer.com/en/keziah-jones.html that's really nice!
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