Seal + THABO @ Symphony Hall, 21 February 2018

It’s almost two years since the colossal Symphony Hall played host to the unequivocally soulful singer and songwriter that is Seal. When two such forces collide, the ensuing resonance that is generated can sometimes propel even the most introverted of concertgoer into relinquishing their inhibitions, heralding a temporary self, for a couple of hours at least, that is truly free. That is the holy grail of the concert going experience, and that is exactly what Seal managed to produce in all those in attendance at this evening’s show. This vast hall will be almost unrecognisable come the culmination of this, Seal’s eighth night performing his ‘Standards’ tour.

Few could guess, especially tonight’s opening performer, just how much of a transformative change this timid audience will undergo before the night is through. The Birmingham Symphony Hall welcomes to its vast stage, THABO – an African name in origin, short for Lethabo, meaning joy — a state of feeling which THABO successfully endeavours to muster from the Birmingham audience.

Accompanying THABO for this much covered slot, in addition to his socks — one of the most spectacularly colourful pairs this stage will likely have encountered — is his long time collaborator, Aron Kyne, who this evening will provide piano accompaniment to THABO’s accomplished vocal abilities. Having previously worked with Naughty Boy, Wilkinson, Idris Elba and Professor Green, whilst continuing to produce his soulful and socially informed work with three-piece band, The Real Deal, it’s no surprise that THABO has been asked to be a part of this tour.

THABO introduces his first song, ‘Shallow Water’, before commencing with a multitude of breathing exercises that seep into his microphone, and consequently the entire hall. This opening song begins with the gripping, “I heard her cry. Screaming at the top of her lungs, I heard her cry”. THABO certainly does not shy away from dealing with themes of a less superficial nature. This first offering, laments the regrettable situation in which the environment appears to take a backseat for those in positions of power, their focus, firmly upon lining the pockets of the few. This theme is further tackled as the song continues its engrossing course, “drowning in shallow water, all in the name of progress”. THABO surmising that all this said progress has provided us with is “oil and sawdust”.

The song could easily be interpreted as a song about Mother Nature, which interestingly see’s her give up on a species that has wasted the opportunity presented to them: “she said die, she said die, she said die, a thousand times over, you waste of space, you waste of time”. Heavy themes, yes, but the execution is poetic and far from cumbersome.

THABO certainly has an impressive voice, but it is his songwriting that intrigues most. It demonstrates playfulness — take ‘Lottery Ticket’, a song in which THABO announces that he will stop playing the lottery for fear of winning, and that a male millionaire is the last thing that this world needs. This song is filled with seemingly paradoxical lines — ‘I believe in God, but struggle with religion’. Upon further investigation, he often makes a very good point.

‘Hey Mamma’ and ‘YaYaYa’ are far more joyous, and provide THABO with the opportunity to literally get the audience warmed up, as he patiently encourages the hall to provide backing to his vocal gymnastics. A task which they deliver on admirably.

Having celebrated his 55th birthday just days previously, Seal arrives to the stage to a warm reception, dressed in a plethora of grey attire — some might say, fifty-five shades of grey — my sincere apologies.

At this point into a career which has been richly rewarded with a multitude of honours, Seal has decided to use this, his tenth studio album, to scratch an itch that has been with him since the outset: “This is the album I have always wanted to make. I grew up listening to music from The Rat Pack era, so recording these timeless tunes was a lifelong dream”.

Many performers have attempted to tackle the daunting catalogue of songs contained within the setlist of standards on offer this evening, but few have had the tools to execute it in the manner in which Seal does tonight. His formidable voice is as strong as it has ever been. ’Luck Be a Lady’ is the opener and given a recording so synonymous with Sinatra, it offers a chance to measure Seal’s voice against one of the true greats. Seal does not do imitation. What is so intriguing about his latest collection of recordings is that his unmistakeable baritone drapes itself over each song, making it his own, without the need for unnecessary deviations simply for the sake of it.

‘I Put A Spell on You’; ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ and ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ are served up with a wholly energised and mightily impressive orchestral backing. The hits keep coming, one after another, with Seal taking time between songs to discuss the importance of this music in his formative years.

When an artist chooses to make an album informed by such material, it would be logical to assume that the hope would be that a new audience might find him. This assumption comically backfires on Seal when he is addressing a gentleman of a vintage year, nestled under the headliner’s nose in the front row. Seal is somewhat surprised at the reply that comes from the audience member when asked if his attendance was prompted by the new albums songs that have been on the musical landscape for decades. It turns out that this is the third time that the silver haired gentleman has seen Seal, much to the surprise of the inquisitive Seal.

A rousing rendition of ‘That’s Life’ brings the standards portion of the show to a close, and though the audience has been exuberant in their appreciation, it is the next part of the show which results in the seismic shift in energy alluded to earlier.

Seal makes his way into the audience and positions himself in the middle of a row, perched tentatively on the back of a likely unperturbed audience member. It is a this point that Seal ramps up the energy levels as he breaks into the opening lines from ‘Killer’. The audience immediately rise up, egged on by Seal’s cries, “Let’s go Birmingham…Let’s have it!”. At this point, the thunderous percussion kicks in, and the hall erupts.

Seal proceeds to cover almost every area of the stalls, followed for the duration, by a crowd of devout followers, clambering at their mobile phones in order to capture a spectacularly special moment. ‘ Fly Like An Eagle’ and ‘Life On The Dancefloor’ propel the energy levels further towards hysteria, before the band depart before returning for a stunning version of ‘Crazy’. Each tier of the hall resembles the deck of some cruise ship, departing for some joyful destination, each level peppered with flailing arms.

Though tonight’s show is a distinct split between the standards material and Seal’s own catalogue, they differences are muted by an overarching similarity. To quote tonight’s headliner: they are connected by one undeniable truth: “the song and the voice…the song is literally untouchable to me. Its divine. The songs last forever”.

Reviewer: Chris Curtis

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