Bilal at the Sugar Club, Thursday 23 July 2015
“Things got a little out of hand there.”
Bilal is seemingly the master of understatement, because throwing your mic stand off the Sugar Club’s tiny stage before jumping down to join it on the ground, rolling around and screaming for the best part of two minutes? That is more than a “little out of hand” – in the best possible way.
Indeed, for all the soulful crooning and R&B-style sensibilities, it quickly becomes apparent from his vivacity and presence that the Philadelphia-born polymath is perhaps best described as a rock star. His band take to the stage first (after a superb support slot from the always impressive Loah), and dive right in to a hefty jam that immediately renders the room captivated. The band boasts absolutely spectacular percussion and strange, squelchy keys that underpin some surprisingly heavy guitars, and gorgeously pure backing vocals.
But it is Bilal himself who brings that je ne sais quoi to the show. It’s something in the way he wears sunglasses when he takes to the stage in a way that should be pretentious but, on him, it sincerely seems cool and self-assured. There’s something in his sheer sensual eccentricity too, as he manically writhes and moans into the microphone. His performance is as weird as it is sultry, and it’s all the more appealing for it.
For all the formidable energy that appears in his recordings, in a live setting Bilal’s remarkably unfaltering voice and sheer confidence is astounding. He leaps and bounds around the stage excitedly, increasingly engaging with the crowd as he warms into the show; but also, just as frequently, engaging with the band. Beyond a mere showman, then, it is quickly apparent that Bilal is a music fan. Indeed, there are points where the singer will go to the side of the stage with a huge grin just to watch as the band indulges in some glorious, phenomenally entertaining free jazz interludes. It’s all fantastically uninhibited as a gig – Bilal speaks the opening lines of Sometimes – “This is a song that makes me spill out all my guts” – and that is very much the vibe of the night. There is something euphoric, thrilling and even cathartic about seeing a group let loose on stage, and it ends up feeling as metal as it does soul.
He even calls on the crowd to come down to the front during the encore, and there are some sweetly funky moments during the likes of Soul Sista, that breaks down into something a bit jazzier with Bilal and his backing singer scatting over some ludicrously great instrumentals.
There’s been a wave of recent interest in Bilal following his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s seminal ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, but at the Sugar Club he proves that he is an artist whose work merits appreciation in its own right. Put short: the man knows how to put on a goddamn show.