In another era, when musical overload and recorded abundance hadn’t so fragmented the listening public as to diminish the notion of shared tastes, a pitch-perfect performance such as Lianne La Havas’ at the Roxy on Friday night would have reverberated beyond West Hollywood.
La Havas is a British singer and electric guitarist with a range so broad as to render genre distinctions moot. She gigged the sold-out Sunset Strip club on a rainy night and offered a batch of songs that, from the first moment of her first song, “Au Cinema,” delivered on the promise of her soulful, mature debut album, “Is Your Love Big Enough?”
A timely opening theme in the film capital of the world, “Au Cinema” has a classic Stan Getz/João Gilberto feel to it, smooth without being easy, filled with understated drama and a warm, humming voice. “I wish that we could somehow freeze the frame,” she sang while dropping complicated guitar rhythms suggestive of Brazilian tropicalia, “but this isn’t the silver screen.”
Although La Havas is only 23, she projects an aged confidence while playing, even if the wonder in her eyes as she looked upon the tightly packed Roxy made her look like a schoolgirl. Hers is a music that over the course of 15 songs suggested a depth of influences, all of which magically combined to create something singularly La Havasian.
One moment she and her fluid, four-piece backing band conjured Joni Mitchell, the next, Sade. She possesses the overflowing talent of Alicia Keys, the meandering musicality of Meshell Ndgeocello, and her allegiance to Jill Scott was made evident by a graceful version of her “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat).” That La Havas covers Leonard Cohen on record is illustrative of her aspirations.
To fully appreciate her voice, it must be heard live. As though there exists in her diaphragm a miniature cathedral, on record she layers it, harmonizing with herself, performing feats otherwise impossible in a live setting.
In lesser hands, such layering is a diversion tactic oft used in service of a struggling voice. But at the Roxy, La Havas needed none of it. Without the vocal layers, she purely and with the confident phrasing of an artist with twice the experience offered precision and control. On the title track to “Is Your Love Big Enough?,” she moved from octave to octave, imbuing a simple phrase such as “ice cream on 2nd Avenue” with swollen and thrilling emotion.
She was, to put it simply, fantastic, and transcended the oft clamorous Roxy, whose ruder and less devoted fans chatted during her set as if they were on the floor of a stock exchange. Had they paid more attention, they’d have better understood what the rapt others experienced: a natural talent with boundless potential whose charisma is matched only by her musical prowess.