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Lianne La Havas seduces with her fragile soul/jazz at the Varsity

The planets – or something – aligned. It was the right venue for that artist at the right time. British pop star Lianne La Havas at a crowded Varsity Theater on Tuesday night just felt right. So right.

Not because the crowd gushed like worshipful One Direction fans. Or because an admiring Prince sat in the balcony (as he did two years ago at the Varsity for La Havas’ debut; she sang on his “Art Official Age” album in 2014). Or because 89.3 the Current has been championing La Havas’ second and latest album, “Blood,” and recorded an in-studio session with her before the concert.

No, it’s because her sound fit the Varsity. And she was so effective in presenting her gauzy, gently breezy, enticingly sexy soul/jazz/pop. Her voice was fragile, befitting the vulnerability of her lyrics. But, like her lyrics, she also had resiliency and strength, showing a full-throated soulful voice that recalled Alicia Keys.

Natural, engaging and unpretentious, La Havas, 26, connected more convincingly in the quieter modes if only because her four-man band was a little too aggressive on up-tempo numbers like “Never Get Enough.”

When it was just her voice and her hollow body electric guitar playing soft jazzy chords, the London singer was penetrating and seductive, with her straightforward lyrics on “Age,” “Ghost” and “Tease Me” pulling at your heartstrings.  

Even with her band and backup singer on a slower, pretty piece like “Lost and Found,” La Havas’ butter-like voice made you want to melt into your lover’s arms. And she was just as alluring on lite funk of “Unstoppable,” one of her singles from “Blood.”

La Havas’ sound may owe debts to a long line of mellow British soul/pop stars from Soul II Soul and Sade to Corinne Bailey Rae and Adele. In other words, her music is not particularly original but it is inspired and refreshing.

Tuesday’s 85-minute, 17-song set was split between material from “Blood” and her 2012 debut, “Is Your Love Big Enough?” Both records are winners but her live performance was even more remarkable.

Here is La Havas' set list from the Varsity:

Green & Gold/ Is Your Love Big Enough/ Au Cinema (with a snippet of Pharrell’s Happy) / What You Don’t Do/ Wonderful/ Tease Me/ No Room for Doubt/ Lost & Found/ Unstoppable/ Grow/ Midnight/ Elusive/ Never Get Enough/ Tokyo  ENCORE Age/ Ghost/ Forget 

Recap of Monday's neighboring concerts by Chris Cornell, Wolf Alice

Chris Cornell plugs in for Monday's unplugged set at the State Theatre.

Chris Cornell plugs in for Monday's unplugged set at the State Theatre.

Two noteworthy rock shows happened two blocks apart Monday night in Minneapolis, and one music critic did his best to assess them both. The timing worked out to catch the first 80 minutes of Chris Cornell’s solo acoustic gig and then only miss the first two songs of Wolf Alice’s hourlong set.


He started out talking about the weather – “I know you’ve got about four minutes of warm weather left,” he said – and would go on to discuss James Bond movies, record companies and his old lyric about “feeling Minnesota.” So the 51-year-old Seattle howler didn’t just peel off the thundering layers of his beloved band Soundgarden in Monday’s sold-out solo-acoustic performance, he also stripped away the rock-starry façade that often accompanies his gigs.

This was a folky, coffeehouse-ready singer/songwriter gig to the T, from his informal banter to his (wise) decision to throw in several covers, ranging from the so-obvious but so-perfect spin on Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” to the surprise pick of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are-a-Changing,” which included new lyrics and even a little harmonica blowing. Cornell didn’t choose the latter tune just for Bob’s native state – he’s playing it every night on his tour – but he did throw in a discussion of Soundgarden’s “Outshined” lyrics to set it up (“I’m looking California, but feeling Minnesota”). The story was he wrote it one day while wearing shorts in Los Angeles -- “and I’m so skinny, I look ridiculous in shorts.”

“I thought it was one of the dumbest things I’d ever written, but I left it in,” he admitted. “And then it wound up being a movie title and everything.”

Minnesota was definitely feeling Cornell. Early in the show, one guy in the balcony let out a loud “[F---] yeah!” midway through his 2009 solo tune “As Hope & Promise Fade” after the singer launched into his first series of loud, bellowing high notes, and both Cornell and the rest of responded favorably to what was clearly “a moment.” There were plenty more of those during the first half of the set, also including the surprisingly tender “Let Your Eyes Wander” – one of several enhanced by cello from his lone onstage accomplice Brian Gibson – as well as the Bond movie theme “You Know My Name.” In the first half of the set, he only dropped in as many oldies as is seemingly required, but each also went over huge, including a cello-laden “Fell on Black Days” and looping-rigged “Blow Up the Outside World,” as well as an entirely solo rendition of Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike.”


I fully expected to come under frontwoman Ellie Roswell’s charms Monday night, what with her broad- ranging voice and ability to bounce from pretty to ugly at the drop of a fuzz pedal. The bigger, better surprise at her London-reared quartet’s second Twin Cities performance was just how tight and united the entire band is. It’s not just Roswell’s show.

Playing to about a three-quarters-full room, she and the rest of the band pulled off impressive musical change-ups and crescendoing moments throughout their hourlong set. They quickly bounced from the gorgeously burning single “Bros” to the sneering punk blast of “You’re a Germ” without any hitch, and then slowed things down without losing the crowd for the mellow mood-soaker “Soapy Water.” Best of all, their explosive guitar bursts and most manic parts hit like a Mack truck (or maybe a Mercedes truck, being British), particularly in “Lisbon” and the pre-encore finale “Giant Peach.”

Her bandmates look like a mish-mash of personalities as much as they sound like one: Bassist Theo Ellis looks and acts like he’s in some high-energy pop/punk band, drummer and co-vocalist Joel Amey has sort of a ‘70s Southern Californian look, and guitarist Jeff Oddie has more of an aloof concentration befitting a shoegazer band.

The encore itself hit home that the quartet is still relatively a baby band and doesn’t yet have enough strong material to fill out a headlining set, but they ended strong with “Moaning Lisa Smile.” A couple more albums and tours and this could be one of rock’s most exciting live bands.

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