Sunday, May 3, 2015

Guest Post: The Definition of Soul

Methven-based artist and musician Pania Brown went to the recent Paolo Nutini gig at the Powerstation in Auckland (April 6, 2015). I asked her in advance if she’d like to jot down a few words about it, but evidently there were no words to describe how much she enjoyed it. Until now. Weeks later, she’s finally calm and composed enough to share what turned out to be a procession of quite grubby thoughts …

I’ll just get one thing out of the way, so we can move on. Paolo Nutini is ridiculously good looking, and I don’t think anyone, anywhere, would disagree. Certainly not the loud Scottish man last night at The Powerstation in Auckland who shouts out words to that effect. I already knew it before seeing Nutini live, and I admit it may have swayed me to listen a little more intensely when I first became a fan (so sue me I’m shallow).
But you have to know you’re hot when not one, but two male Scottish voices yell out “Paolo, you’re really good looking”, and later, another “take your shirt off”. At least he has the decency to not take his shirt off (damn!), smile sheepishly, and just roll into another song.

For the record, there were just as many blokes in the audience last night as there were women. But maybe not in the front row. And maybe, only because they were there with their girlfriends? I almost felt bad for him up there trying to get the masses to listen to his music, and I wondered if his looks do more to distract, but then I thought ‘fuck it’ and just enjoyed the fact that the music was great, his voice was sublime, and it all came in an incredibly aesthetically pleasing to the eye package. Tick tick tick!

Before going to Auckland for the concert I was on the phone to a friend who didn’t know who Paolo Nutini was and asked me what kind of music he does? I hate to pigeonhole music (#pop #acoustic #folk #spacejazzacidblendhouse #bullshit), so I ended up saying soul/blues/rock and left out the innocuous sounding “pop” which seems so insulting. Then I got to thinking that I left out “funk” and how hard it is to label a Scottish soul singer/songwriter of Italian descent, and how hard it is to categorise Nutini. I was surprised initially to hear he was headlining the recent Byron Bay Bluesfest, and I remember thinking, is he “The Blues?” …

And again, it’s hard to label certain music, and why do we try when it’s easier to just enjoy?

Paolo Nutini’s name makes him sound more like an Italian footballer than a singer. He was born in Paisley, Scotland, to a father of Italian descent who ran a fish and chip shop and a Scottish mother. Somewhere in that mix he got great looks, a voice which is as gravelly as a well-trodden road, and soul in spades.

Where does this mysterious “soul” come from? Not just from the southern states of America, and not from the colour of your skin, although anyone who sings like this has no doubt listened to the likes of Sam Cooke, Al Green, or Aretha Franklin somewhere along the way.

Turns out soul comes “from within”. And as Nutini says, his songs come “all from observation”. That’s soul enough for me. For what it’s worth, here’s what a Google search says about soul:- “emotional or intellectual energy or intensity, especially as revealed in a work of art or an artistic performance”. So there.

“Scottish soul” however might seem to some to be a contradiction in terms, but if you ask the Internet for a list of names you’ll come up with Annie Lennox, or Emeli Sande, or a list of older vocalists, none of whom I’ve even heard of. I always thought the term “Northern Soul” referred to the working classes of England but it seems it seeped over the border to Scotland (or vice versa?). Basically you can be a soul singer if you’ve been there, done that, survived so far, even if scarred for life and you sing like you mean it. Paolo Nutini’s a soul singer.
Nutini can’t dance he tells us (and it’s true). He moves around the stage and the 9-piece band (especially the horn section), do all the dancing you really need. He’s softly spoken, and that, combined with his thick Scottish accent, makes it difficult to understand him when he’s chatting to the audience – unless you are in the front row (which I’m not). I do catch that his mother’s in the audience as he dedicates a song to her (‘Cherry Blossom’?), and that he went swimming today and swam into the end of the pool (“don’t smoke before you go swimming!”). This comment elicits much guffawing from the smokers in the audience (and those young kids who have no idea what everyone’s laughing about but are desperate to fit in). It is well known that Nutini likes the marijuana, and is open about smoking it “every day since 16”.

The set comprises of the old and the new. He plays interesting and enjoyable versions off his latest UK No. 1 album Caustic Love, and then very different and sometimes shortened and mixed up versions off the previous two albums, These Streets, and Sunny Side Up. It works for me, although too many slower songs mid-set make the evening drag slightly. I love the groove of ‘New Shoes’ and ‘Scream’ and want more of that, although his voice is better when more isolated.

Many people go to gigs and are disappointed when the songs don’t sound exactly like the recorded versions, but I’m the opposite. I like it when they are delivered in another way, and god knows it must make it more enjoyable for the artist to play around with the originals. Nutini obviously enjoys himself, and immerses himself in the music and boy can he sing!

My favourites have always been ‘Candy’ off These Streets, and ‘Iron Sky’ from Caustic Love, and I am not let down by either. The highlight would be ‘Scream’ at the beginning of the gig … an amazingly funky song which even has the boyfriends jiggling around awkwardly on the spot, vying for attention (good luck with that!).

The concert lasts two hours. The encore is polished and well rehearsed, if a bit mellow. It strikes me what an amazingly well behaved crowd Kiwis are (not that everyone here is Kiwi). We clap when expected. We politely call out songs and comments when you should. One guy politely throws a shoe very carefully to (not at) Nutini during ‘New Shoes’ and it is politely thrown back later. We stomp and clap for the encore and are rewarded. We leave politely, and all in all it’s a good old night out. I remain stunned by the depth of his vocals at the end of the day.

Set List:

Bus Talk (interlude)
Let Me Down Easy
Coming Up Easy
Alloway Grove
Jenny Don’t Be Hasty/New Shoes
Looking For Something
Better Man
These Streets
One Day
Cherry Blossom
Pencil Full Of Lead
No Other Way
Iron Sky
Tricks Of The Trade
Time To Pretend
Someone Like You
Last Request

On the way to catch the plane back home (to Methven) the following morning, I had the pleasure of a conversation with an older couple from Manchester who now live in North Wales and had been travelling around New Zealand as part of a cruise. They were heading home. I mentioned I had been to Paolo Nutini and it turns out their son Benjamin Thomas Taylor (you can look him up, his artworks are on the Web), painted the amazing picture of Paolo on the cover of his latest album Caustic Love. Yes it’s a small world.

Yes I am practically best friends with Paolo now, yes we are going for a beer later and I’m going to stare to the point of creepiness …

All words and pictures by Pania Brown.

Pania’s previous contribution to everythingsgonegreen can be found here.

Incidentally, there have been no reported public sightings of Paolo Nutini since his Auckland appearance, and I personally refuse to believe reports from Pania's neighbours that extensive DIY renovations are ongoing in the vicinity of Pania's basement.


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