Published Aug 12, 2010On what felt like one of the stickiest nights of this blessedly heated summer, legions of Toronto's soul-seeking faithful sauntered down to the El Mocambo on a steamy Tuesday to welcome Nigerian-born singer-songwriter Nneka on her debut jaunt through town.
The cavernous nightspot was already sweat-soaked and buzzing with radiant anticipation when charismatic local songstress Tanika Chawlz took to the stage with DJ L'Oqenz and back-up singers in tow to deliver her increasingly polished showcase of '60s-inflected soul. Though the handful of cuts allotted to her were barely enough to form a complete opinion, Chawlz's sleek and somewhat sultry offerings left you wishing someone would hand her a proper backup band and about 15 extra minutes of show time.
A soupy 20 minutes passed before Nneka would begin her own sonic assault, and while the capacity crowd sustained their initial enthusiasm, a brief feeling-out period ensued as the diminutive firebrand maintained a reserved pose through opener "Your Request." It wasn't until a cheer-inducing bare harmony near the end of second cut "Walking" that the ice was truly broken and the Hamburg-based singer moved to place the room securely on her back and take it on the journey it had been waiting for.
From there it was a ride through a heavy-impact string of favourites, with the underground champion imbuing songs like "Suffri," "VIP" and the Fela-inspired "Lost Souls" with an enveloping emotive force unreached on record. Each tune grew in gripping stature as the singer and her bandmates dug glory from the details. The bass player's scatting accompaniment on "Kangpe" marked one notable highlight, as did the beautiful piano and vocal interlude leading into show-stopper "Heartbeat," a cut topped only by the sonic and creative breadth of rapped closer "Sweet Mama."
As must-see events go, Nneka's inspired set more than lived up to its advance billing, with the only thing topping the shared sense of full-belly satisfaction that night likely being the cool midnight breeze.