Leela James should be more well known than she is. It’s not that she’s underrated, I just don’t think her music is promoted as much as it should be. Her debut album “A change is gonna come” dealt with her musical influences, which are firmly rooted in classic Soul, Blues and Gospel as she relates tales of overcoming life’s obstacles. As an artist who was overlooked by her record company for the best part of four years, I’m sure she knows all about obstacles. Her latest album “Let’s do it again” is an album of cover versions including great interpretations of “Miss you” by The Rolling Stones, Phyllis Hyman’s epic “You know how to love me” and Al Green’s “Simply beautiful”, but tonight she’s not including those well known songs in her set.
Strutting onto the stage she lets us know exactly where she’s coming from by launching into a James Brown medley of “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time” and “Make it Funky”. She’s diminutive with big hair and an even bigger voice. With feisty calls to the sound man to fix her microphone feedback problems, she shows she means business tonight. Her tight band consists of drums, five string bass, guitar and keyboard, with two female backing singers who compliment Leela’s vocals with some strong singing of their own.
At one point she becomes a Gospel preacher by stepping off stage into the crowd and giving a short call and response type sermon. A high point is her rousing version of Sam Cooke’s anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come”, giving it a twist as she partly turns it into a call for revolutionary change within the current music scene. Her stage show is that of a soulful and funky old time revue, with Leela encouraging people to get on stage and dance with her to classics like Rick James’ “Give It to Me” alongside a quick blast of the Maze classic “Joy and pain”. The biggest cheer is reserved for “Music” off her debut album, a defiant critique of the lack of soul and real singing within the music scene, her powerful vocals soaring effortlessly as she laments that “it’s all about the video”.
I’ve said before that Leela James is the female equivalent of Anthony Hamilton, so it’s good to see via her Twitter updates that she’s done a duet with him for her next album. I’m sure their musical output will perfectly compliment each other. Real soul artists like this are an increasing rarity, so it’s great to be able to go and see someone who can cut it live but also capture exactly what it is they’re all about when they record. Classic Blues, Soul and Funk tinged with Gospel is indeed a rarity when it’s presented by Leela James.