If you took your seat a few minutes after the metaphorical curtain went up at Londons Royal Albert Hall on Guy Fawkes Night, you might be excused for thinking youd got the date wrong. A 100 strong orchestra and choir was in full flow with a willowy, wild-haired figure resplendent in dress shirt and tails commanding the proceedings. In fact the lady wielding the baton was none other than Imogen Heap, curating her biggest and most ambitious headline show to date. So, right night after all, and fireworks still to come.
This was leg seven of a tour that has been forward and back across the globe for stretches since it started off in Los Angeles almost a year ago. Yet November 5th was no ordinary gig. It was almost an oddity to see Imogen Heap in the vast arena of Londons most prestigious venue. Wasnt this the artiste who had gone on record not that long ago to claim that touring, the new black of band economics, was in fact getting too expensive? After a wholly magical performance in front of a packed house, though, no one was left doubting that this particular evenings investment, which included a simultaneous webcast, was well worthwhile.
The show opened with Heap setting the scene for the inaugural performance of the music she had composed to accompany a 32 minute film, Love The Earth. Her girlish delight is infectious, voiced in tones remarkably similar to those of the English actress, Emma Thompson. The film is a crowd-sourced collage of footage, celebrating the natural world in a series of personal perspectives. The music is broken into eleven segments, most of which are obviously very short, beginning with a piece that involves some audience participation.
The combination of frequently stunning projected images and the sheer presence that the massed ranks of musicians and singers created made it quite difficult to isolate what was happening musically. It all seemed to work perfectly yet at times washed over, like an unrelenting sea. Looking around the nearby seats, people seemed enrapt and intent, others passive but still appreciative. Heap had asked everyone not to applaud until the end and once the final movement subsided, a patient audience did this in spades. You could almost sense the relief as much as the love this audience feels for their artiste.
Bows having been taken, a sizeable stage crew rapidly broke down the orchestral set and wheeled on the components of a gadget-laden stage ready for Act Two. A broad white stylized tree sat at the back of the stage with miniature copies of the same dotted behind it. The tree created a playground for projected images and lighting effects that were as comforting as they were clever. It symbolized the role of the natural and intimate set against the electronics that surrounded it. In the same way Imogen Heap ploughs her largely electro furrow but brings a heart and warmth to it that is lacking in most other examples of the genre.
Photo by Crazybobbles
Sans choir and orchestra, the singer returned to more applause and love. She acknowledged them, but keeping in spirit with her generosity, she individually introduced her band members. She flit from keyboard to keyboard, only to be joined by a fluid permutation of band members and entrances within the two-hour set, which spanned 18 songs, chiefly from her last two albums, Ellipse and Speak for Yourself. There was an extra cohesion to the set as the latest album continues the vibe of its predecessor. Launching into The Walk, Heap wandered the stage as she intoned mantras (“Be like this”, “Feel like this”) that worked as an extended opening, before the band kicked in with a precise and energetic workout. She followed this with Swoon”, which was introduced with a musical saw loop, showing that the live show is not simply about recreating the recorded sound though a fair fist was made of that but the adoption of an experimental spirit.
Famous for embracing social networking and internet share culture, the artiste her fans affectionately call Immi is nothing if not democratic. She explained how fans have been voting for songs to appear on the set list, which now includes the top 12 choices. Highlights come thick and fast with the opener from Ellipse, First Train Home, which elicited an especially warm response. Heap set up an amazing loop involving notes resonating from three wine glasses, built in some percussion, and then declared that it all sounded terrible, before she started again to the audience’s delight.
Samples from real life introduced several songs. For Little Bird, the sound of birds in Heaps local park were set against images of electronic birds flying between the on-stage trees. Canvas opened with the recorded sample of the singers family around a crackling bonfire before the songs soundscape developed around intricate loops with violin and viola to the fore.
Heap seems as comfortable with voice only renditions as with band workouts. The choir returned for Earth, joining Heap and a beat box vocalist in an acapella fest while she used the audience split into three groups as her backing track on a breathtaking Just For Now. Heap revealed an alchemists touch on Between Sheets, turning a technical blip into another cue for a round of applause. Her disarmingly matter of fact manner is stellar, though it helps being able to write such a tender and intimate song as this, allowing the audience in to share her blushes.
Goodnight And Go is an absolute gem on record but the live treatment was not quite as convincing. The drums felt a bit too prominent and the guitar effects were less clean. Vocally though, the singer remained on the money all evening and this overcame any such minor misgivings. Despite all the previous experimentation, however, Imogen Heap highlighted her versatility on Tidal, where weird and wonderful instruments gave way to a rock out ending, complete with a Keytar solo, a parody stage run, and a leap. She flipped the switch soon after, though, paring things down to a solo piano, where she knocked out a beautiful airing of The Moment I Said It. Naturally, she closed with the inevitable yet rapturous hit, “Hide And Seek”, leaving the audience in awe.
In hindsight, the strength and ingenuity of Imogen Heaps performance throughout the evening was the stuff of wonder. Despite the technology surrounding her, its her sheer humanity that won through. With mics attached to wrists literally wired for sound, flitting from perspex piano to percussion and with sequencers primed, she remained disarmingly casual with absolutely no barriers between artiste and audience. As she said, “You and me between sheets. It just doesnt get better than this.”
Come Here Boy
Wait It Out
First Train Home
Just For Now
Goodnight And Go
The Moment I Said It
Hide And Seek