Nell’s Jazz and Blues Club, London
Saturday, 14th October 2023
This was the final night of Bruce Soord’s first ever solo tour, to promote his latest album Luminescence, released on 22nd September. The album was partly inspired by Bruce’s intention to reflect on, and be inspired by his surroundings during the Pineapple Thief’s extensive world tour last year. It contains its fair share of electronica, including samples of recordings taken ‘on location’, and also features string arrangements by Andrew Skeet, of the Divine Comedy fame. The nature of the recording process raised questions about how Bruce would present the songs in a live setting, so I was full of anticipation arriving at the venue.
Nell’s has a generous stage area and after piecing together the clues in the set-up I soon got confirmation from more informed audience members that accompanying Bruce would be long-time Pineapple Thief bassist Jon Sykes and experienced session musician Tash Buxton-Lewis on drums. It felt like the new songs were going to be significantly re-worked, so an interesting evening was in prospect.
But first, having failed to do any sort of research beforehand, the first thing I thought when a young man walked on stage and stood behind the front and centre keyboard rig was that a brief final soundcheck was about to take place. There were no announcements, no dimmed lighting, no walk-on music, and to the collective bemusement of the audience Philipp Nespital, aka Smalltape, began his support set with a jazz style electric piano riff and the opening bars to Where We Belong. This short opening piece segued into The Sailor’s Tale and it soon became clear that we were in for a truly astonishing musical and theatrical experience.
Phillipe, who also had a guitar strapped over his shoulder, has a powerful and expressive voice, and by way of the loop station sitting over the top of the keyboard, he became the ultimate one-man-band for the 2020s. His latest album release, The Hungry Heart from 2021, from which more than half of the set was drawn, incorporated no less than thirteen collaborators, including brass and string players. Performing these songs on his own required coordination of his keyboard and guitar playing, his singing, and control of the loops required to sustain the rhythms and melodies. He barely put a foot wrong and managed to maintain a relaxed and engaging rapport with the audience as he explained the origins and context of the songs. Closing out at the end of the first two songs was met with enthusiastic applause and some reassuring shout outs. It seemed like he was genuinely surprised by this, but it was a spontaneous reaction from the whole crowd to the musicianship, invention and innovation on show.
His music has all the characteristics of modern melodic prog. The Hungry Heart includes shorter instrumental pieces, acoustic-based songs, rock songs and a widescreen epic, and despite the constraints he had created for himself on the night, his set was perfectly pieced together to showcase all his talents. Colors and One Day were particular crowd pleasers, full of energy and high emotion, driven by the nature of their respective subject matters. Colors is also notable for the point at which rap successfully crosses over into prog, not a sentence that I ever thought I’d be writing. Smalltape was a revelation for me and the reception from the whole audience at the end of the set was the warmest and most whole-hearted one I have experienced for a long, long time.
Where We Belong
The Sailor’s Tale
The Ocean Pt2. / The Shore
Philipp Nespital – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards, Loop Station
Bruce Soord and his band also entered the stage without fanfare, but with a welcoming ovation. Having covered some mileage in the last few weeks, touring the old-fashioned way in a van and without a crew, various comments through the set suggested that they were glad to be back and finishing the tour in London. Whether that put an extra spring in the step we don’t know, but there was certainly plenty of energy on show for the first song, Instant Flash of Light. The light touch acoustic guitar on the album version was replaced by energetic strumming by Bruce, and the sweeping string arrangements by the active rhythm section. Instantly noticeable was also Jon Sykes’ backing vocals, providing a familiar addition to the tone and feel. My only issue with the album is that Bruce’s vocal could be more prominent in the mix, so in the live setting, with Bruce’s voice sounding strong and Jon providing harmonics honed over the last 10 years or more, the songs really came to life – just what you’d want from a live performance.
Next up was the first single release from the album, Dear Life. It’s a neat piece of sequencing with the hook from track one, “And with your eyes you caught me in this instant flash of light”, followed by the hook from track two, “Don’t wish that it will all be over / In the sweetest blink of an eye”.
Whilst Bruce has identified the origins and inspiration of the album, from the connections he made on the previous tour, he also explains how personal reflection on life closer to home will always be an influence on his song-writing. Listening to the album, I was immediately struck by the recurrence of the themes of loss and regret, but which are also counter-balanced by the power of the human spirit. The melancholy that Bruce expresses so acutely is given a more optimistic context, in which he focuses on the potential to take the positives out of life experiences. The interesting part is that the musical setting of the songs on the album tend to emphasise the melancholy, whereas in the live setting Bruce’s enthusiastic delivery does the opposite.
Day of All Days, with its breaks and pauses, is a chance for Bruce to play up the drama contained in the song, and his introduction to All This Will Be Yours explains how his acute observations on life are often inspired by simple day-to-day interactions. Lie Flat and Buried Here are mellow and perfectly suit this band formation, who are well in synch by now. Bruce and Jon are such a strong partnership and Tash brings an elegant balance to the trio, no more so than in the cinematic Nestle In, with its defining drum rolls.
The Solitary Path of a Convicted Man and Field Day, Part 1 are clearly important songs in Bruce’s solo catalogue and are delivered with conviction and heart. We move into the final part of the set with Cut the Flowers from All This Will Be Yours, which is a perfect curtain raiser for the emotional suite of songs from Luminescence that will follow. As Bruce explained, Cut the Flowers was inspired by the devotion of a partner returning to a gravestone day after day to remember a loved one. The new songs that follow deal with the maelstrom of emotions in the face of separation, or loss, and the set closes with Find Peace, where there is the opportunity to reach a closure of sorts.
The encores are celebratory with Snowdrops enabling the audience and band to share in the collective joy of the evening with a burst of hand-clapping, and The Odds fittingly finishing it all off with another solo track and some playful sparring between the two frontmen. Reassuringly, it seemed like the band enjoyed the evening as much as we did. It was a beautifully put together set and the arrangements of the new songs worked perfectly. One of the great pleasures I took away with me was the warm atmosphere throughout the evening and the rapport between the musicians and the audience, that was also carried over to the merchandise stall and the polite queueing for signings after the gig. What a great pleasure, many thanks for the effort and professionalism of all those involved, and I can highly recommend searching out some merch for yourself.
SETLIST – Bruce Soord
Instant Flash of Light
Day of All Days
All This Will Be Yours
The Solitary Path of a Convicted Man
Field Day, Part 1
Cut the Flowers
Rushing / Stranded Here / Read To Me
Alone at Sea (The Pineapple Thief song)
Snowdrops (The Pineapple Thief song)
Bruce Soord – Vocals, Guitars
Jon Sykes – Bass, Backing Vocals
Tash Buxton-Lewis – Drums