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Zara McFarlane

Howard Assembly Room, Leeds
Friday 9 February 2018

When an equally enigmatic and amiable figure held open a door for me before tonight's concert, I had no idea that this might be the support act. What's more, I couldn't have known that this gentleman with striking dreads and a warm smile would deliver the completely captivating performance that he did. The Zimbabwe-born, Huddersfield-based singer songwriter THABO made such an impact on the Leeds crowd that any of us would have been forgiven for wanting him to extend his set, despite the treat that awaited us in the form of Zara McFarlane. With only Aron Kyne's subtle yet inventive piano as accompaniment, THABO introduced us to his crisp vocals via a selection of elegantly lyrical, self-penned soul songs including the heartfelt Shallow Water, the poignant and life-affirming Lottery Ticket and the stirring Yayaya, with its cunning - and utterly pleasing - nod towards Stevie Wonder's Pastime Paradise. With a poetic set, an arresting vocal and a notable affection for his audience, THABO is surely on the cusp of well-deserved greatness.

Suitably warmed-up and desperate for more soulful vocals and impassioned songs, the audience at tonight's Howard Assembly Room concert were genuinely euphoric as Zara McFarlane and her band took to the stage. And having been a fan of the British-Jamaican singer for the past seven years myself, I was more than happy to join in with the whoops and hollers as this formidable young artist leapt into her latest single Peace Begins Within. The seductive opener was one of the highlights from Zara's outstanding 2017 release Arise and offered saxophonist Binker Golding and keyboardist Peter Edwards an early opportunity to shine with fluid electric piano chords and limber tenor lines.

The fiery and indignant Zara McFarlane from the cover image of Arise was replaced, this evening, by an infectiously effervescent and alluring artist, uncompromising in her vivacious passion for the music. Giggling as she sparred with drummer Sam Jones during Angie La La, one of the standout tracks from her 2014 album If You Knew Her and dancing throughout, Zara appeared utterly content and proud to be sharing her songs via the expertise of this cluster of first-rate musicians. Indeed, bassist Max Luthert reduced an otherwise frenzied audience to complete and reverential silence during his contemplative introduction to Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves, a searing meditation on gang war and police brutality. Luthert's bass later blended with Peter Edwards' electric piano for the sensitive and melodic In Between Worlds and drummer Sam Jones dazzled with his operation of the vocal samples on the brilliant Allies or Enemies. 

Whilst Zara's versatile vocals lend themselves with apparent ease to such fervent and mercilessly impassioned songs as Pride, with its seductive harmony samples, and the reggae-soaked Fussin' and Fightin', this dexterous singer is at her very best during the slower, melody-laden ballads such as the aforementioned In Between Worlds and Silhouette which, with its stirring Coltrane-esque opening and sublime sax solo courtesy of Binker Golding, was also given a very welcome airing this evening. Once again, the good people at the Howard Assembly Room have delivered the goods with another memorable performance from an artist who breaks down boundaries, both musically and socially. What more can we ask for?

Liam Wilkinson
Northern Sky