I had never once set foot into Pepper Rocks until Tuesday night, which was the Unplugged Pepper Rocks send off party, to say goodbye to their sound engineer who’s off travelling the world. What struck me about the place was it’s cosy, small, antique feel. Made with brick, stone and wood, it offers a rustic, traditional pub feel, but with a youthful/edgy side to it, making it a popular haunt for a more alternative crowd. Taking advantage of the £3.50 cocktail offer, I grab myself a Woo Woo (can’t help but think that sounds a little risqué…) and find a seat, which isn’t particularly easy as the room is jam packed. I’m suddenly grateful I found a seat, as the gig starts a fair bit later than anticipated, as they usually seem to in Nottingham, but before I know it, BLESSING MAGORE takes the stage with LANCE, who I’m not quite sure whether to call an accompanist or not, because he doesn’t sing, and plays the lead parts in the guitar, so I think I’m just going to have call him Lance!
This is a slight change up to the original line up, possibly explaining the late start, however Blessing seems comfortable, and confident as he opens the evening. Having had Blessing perform for us on the NottinghamLIVE radio show, I know a little of what to expect, and I’m looking forward to hearing them perform. Both men are on guitars, and Blessing strums as Lance harmonises and adds flourishes here and there. They have a chemistry and complement each other, but possibly due to the level of noise in the room, I couldn’t really hear the vocals in the first few numbers. However what I do hear is really nice, with Blessing’s vocals being smooth and his accent adding another layer of sweetness to them. There are lovely melodic passages to his music, with careful consideration being taken to song structure, and although there were a couple of small slips here and there, they recovered quickly, and they were barely noticed. Blessing also dedicates a song to Claudia, the ‘off travelling’ sound engineer, as she is heading to Africa, where Blessing is from. The song is catchy, and the vocals have charm and charisma. Half way through the performance, they are joined on African drums by Daniel Ison, who runs the Pepper Rocks open mic nights. The addition of subtle rhythm brings out another tone to Blessing’s music, but doesn’t detract from the vocal and guitar parts. Blessing also dedicated the next song to Claudia, but this number is a little darker and almost haunting at times, and again it as some lovely melodies. I do think that the guitars can be a little too similar at times though, and can feel a bit like a jam, but when Lance explores the instrument more, it really does bring out more intrigue into the music, and think that even more use of interesting guitar techniques would be nice to hear. Blessing has a sweet style and lovely vocals, and is a comfortable performer. His performance displayed a variety of influences and was a joy to watch and participate in.
Next on the bill was MATT HENSHAW who I have not seen performing live before, so was looking forward to experiencing something new. What struck me about Matt was his interesting use of chords and powerful vocals. He opened confidently, singing a track I recognised from YouTube, which has a country style feel to it, alongside a bit of The Beatles too. He has a heartfelt delivery, with passionately performed vocals alongside strummed guitar. The next number grabs my attention as it is lyrically honest and lovely, with a passionate performance on lines such as “My door is always open if you need a helping hand, my words are here to guide you, there’s always something in the way”. His vocals are impressive, and a little pitchy at times, but this is a result of his intense delivery and heartfelt performance. His vocals are in his chest voice, which is strong and obviously where he is most comfortable, but I would love to hear his falsetto too. The next song he performs is of a different tone, using minor chords, and interesting chord progressions, he instantly has my attention. The change of pace adds interest to his set, and the sadness of the song brings another layer of character to Matt. There is desperation and even anger in this song with lyrics such as “I know you’re saying something, but all I hear is nothing that can help me change my life”. The interesting subject matter works well with the unusual chords. His next song changes the pace back to a more cheerful tone, as he dedicated the song to his fellow performers. Bringing back the country notes from previous numbers, the crowd is enthusiastic and is continually supportive. Especially in the next song which he says is for Nick Clegg, David Cameron and George Osborn, which is slightly unusual and has the audiences attention. He then proceeds into a song where he is “calling them out”, and it has a distinctive blues feel, especially in the guitar hook. The song is well structured, with attention being paid to the melodies, which develop really nicely, and are well contrasted from verse to chorus. He finishes his set with some soulful tracks more traditionally about love, and dedicated his last song to everyone in the audience, which of course receives a good response. His entire set was pleasantly surprising and lovely to hear, with talent and a knack for good songwriting, I look forward to seeing Matt again very soon.
Next on the bill was ESTHER VAN LEUVEN, who I swear I saw four times last week. I think I am beginning to know all their songs off by heart just from frequent listening! What I can say about this dynamic duo, is that they are always a pleasure to listen to. Their first number is one of their new tracks ‘Mr Loverman’, which is soulful and sweet, and both Esther and Frazer are taking extra notice of their performance with consideration being taken with dynamics. The vocals are delicately delivered, but are also contrasted by powerful sections in the chorus. Esther uses her hands on the mic to gesture alongside her vocals, which is nice to see with music of their style. I find myself singing along, because let’s face it, I almost know all the words. Their next track is darker, with a sexy, cheeky air to it, and adds a contrast to their set following their opening number. With lyrics like “we’ll take it easy but we won’t take it slow”, it isn’t completely obvious what they mean, but this leaves their songs open for interpretation, which I think helps the audience relate to their music, and form connections with it. Their performances throughout the next few songs are beautiful, with precision and passion for what they are singing, and with excellent chemistry they are an unforgettable duo with heaps of talent. They work so well together, and Frazer is a wonderful support to Esther who takes the lead on vocals, but Frazer in his own right provides a wonderful accompaniment and is vocally irreplaceable in this collaboration. They finish their set with ‘Better That I Let You Go’ which is a gorgeously varied number, with plenty of room for Esther to showcase her vocals. I particularly love Esther’s lower range, as she doesn’t venture there too often, but in this track we hear more of it. Their set ends on a high and I can’t help but want to listen to it again after it’s over.
Ending the evening is the gloriously glamourous AJA, who takes to the stage with her laptop and effects pedals, changing the tone of the evening completely, and adding an electronic edge to the proceedings. She is has a big personality but is warm and open on stage, and this is important being a solo artist. Her performance is passionate and interesting, as she masters the electronica whilst putting on a visual show too and singing. She doesn’t inhibit herself on stage, and seems to fully experience her music through her body as well by dancing. Her music is varied and has a definitive artistic direction which makes it special. She uses various electronic techniques intelligently, and obviously takes pride in her work, as it is clearly well thought through, with some unexpected and interesting turns which keeps the audience hooked. She has a mixture of styles, some more lively and dance inspired, other slower and spacious, using heavy reverb and delays on the vocals, creating an ethereal element to her style, which is particularly resonant with me as I am a huge fan of all things ethereal. Unfortunately, I had to leave AJA’s set early, but I can say that her unique style, talents, lovely personality and hardworking nature sets her up for an unmissable 2014!