Gregory Porter – credit Erik Umphery (hi-res)

Review: Gregory Porter @ City Hall

An emotionally-charged performance from one of our generation’s greatest living storytellers…

Words: Jules Gray

What does it mean to be a storyteller? To convey a picture of events, emotions, ideas and memories all wrapped up in a package that delivers the listener back to that moment, to feel every second of that moment, in time. Transcending the listener to a charged emotional instant that they not only live in, but carry with them forever; neural coupling. If you want to hear one of our generations greatest living musical storytellers, Gregory Porter is breathing that role second by second. On Sunday’s gig at Sheffield’s City Hall that realisation was intensified by his lengthy performance, backed by a number of his closest musical partners from his early band days – The Harlem Jazz Machine – including pianist Chip Crawford and drummer Emanuel Harrold.

Porter’s musical roots run deep through Harlem, having cut his teeth at jazz club St Nick’s Pub, and he brought a sense of that to Sheffield for one night. As he walked on stage, accompanied by Tivon Pennicott’s tenor saxophone solo, he began the set with ‘Holding On’ from his 2016 album Take Me To The Alley. His unique, emotionally-charged baritone vocals drove through the crowd ushering a silence into the audience and an intimate connection all in one. The music flowed like a gentle river alongside uplifting lyrical melodies and slowly wound around their tributary to the lake. Without a moment’s breath Porter led straight into sharing his ease with the audience commenting, “I’m feeling mighty comfortable, like I’m in a small club in Harlem.” Then with a crisp, rhythmic sax hook, gentle keys and hi-hat hits the melodic phrase of ‘On My Way To Harlem’ from second 2012 album Be Good began.

Throughout the concert there was a liquid energy of soulfulness, tenderness and a huge helping of sincerity, which all bundles up to equate Porter’s universal appeal. Gregory Porter’s heart-opening male vulnerability, similar to singer-songwriter Marvin Gaye, is another element of his appeal. Throughout his set he shared his personal stories and genuinely spirited takes on life, whether it’s ‘Hey Laura’, ‘Don’t Lose Your Steam’ or ‘Free’. You take a walk along memory lane and reflect on his and your own path. The maturity that Porter joined the singing fray – getting started around the age of 40 after an injury caused him to explore other career routes – feeds into his holistic world vision, sharing life experience and advice through his lyrics.

The gospel roots seeped through the whole band and breathed through the graceful performances – bass player Jahmal Nichols oozed this through his elated facial expression and bass licks. There were moments the audience joined in, coaxed by Porter, clapping along as he interpolated Marlena Shaw’s ‘Let’s Wade In The Water’ and more poignantly during his final encore of ‘No Love Dying’ as hushed timbres of multiple voices unified singing the words, “There will be no love that’s dying here”. In a rough world where global conflict punctures daily through news and social media, let alone the daily personal challenges people face, spending a couple of hours with Gregory Porter soothes the soul, touching the heart with joyous tickles of his irresistible warmth.

“Give me a blues song, tell the world what’s wrong
And the gospel singer, giving those messages of love
Woah, and the soul man, with your heart in the palm of his hand
Singing his stories of love and pain…”

He may have held my heart in his palm for those few hours, but I felt safe and loved there. It’s a good palm to be in….


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