Nilüfer Yanya – Village Underground, London

We’ve never been at Village Underground before, a renovated Victorian warehouse in Shoreditch that used to store coal for the railway. With its firm brick walls, high ceiling and the transept-tunnel containing the bar, the space almost has something church-like. The microphone stands, as well as some of the lights, are decorated with ivy. There is a queue outside before the doors open and, given that Nilüfer Yanya has brought not one but two support acts, the room is unexpectedly well-filled as the first set starts.

First up is Lucy Lu, with a six-piece band half of whom will also turn out to be Yanya’s backing band. The songs are mellow and although Lu’s lyrics are too metaphoric to make sense (“I’m an astronaut in space without a suit”, he sings, perhaps channeling Major Tom?), he achieves a subtle swing by adding stresses and rhythms to his vocals. Nevertheless, it’s the band that stands out; especially the double saxophone combo, with Jazzi Bobbi on alto sax, is successful in evoking Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd, as well as Canterbury Scene jazz-prog groups such as Caravan. Without sounding stale in the least, I should add. The tracks available online so far are seemingly stripped-down versions placing less emphasis on these instrumental intermezzo’s, but especially as a live group Lucy Lu is definitely one to keep track of!

Lucy Lu

After a brief break – there are no delays tonight, and all performers express a sense of professionalism that’s decidedly not ‘rock’ – ALASKALASKA take the stage, fronted by Lucinda John-Duarte. Despite having one less musician on stage than Lucy Lu (though still counting an above-average six), their set is a lot wilder and eclectic. They blend disco, jungle and funk into their jazz-pop sound, while also calling to mind U.S. Girls’ experimental yet catchy punk, and Warpaint’s under-the-surface tension. There is a lot going on, then, and sometimes perhaps there’s too much going on. At times, it sounds like the individual musicians are diverging, each locking into their own groove. Somehow, though, they manage to find each other back in this chaos too. The recently released single ‘Meateater’, which comes towards the end of the setlist, is clearly the best track, with its slowing-down chorus and smooth, saxophone-led bridge that finally morphs back into a funky outro.

The wait between ALASKALASKA and Nilüfer Yanya is slightly longer, but from the very first note the latter plays it is clear that she tops both bands that played before her. As mentioned earlier, Yanya’s backing musicians are members of Lucy Lu, including Jazzi Bobbi on saxophone and Lu on guitar/keyboard, which results in a funny situation when she thanks her support acts straight after introducing the band. In general, it seems that there is a lot of inspired crossover work going on between these musicians, with both Jazzi Bobbi and ALASKALASKA having remixed Yanya’s songs. Nevertheless, Nilüfer Yanya is tonight’s impressive centrepiece.

ALASKALASKA

Yet to release her first album, Yanya’s set spans the whole of her ‘backcatalogue’, ranging from a cover of the Pixies ‘Hey’ to an unreleased track called ‘Angels’. The former works surprisingly well – it’s difficult to pigeon-hole Yanya into a specific genre, but punk rock certainly doesn’t come to mind immediately. Nevertheless, her unique open-ended style of guitar-playing suits the track, giving the chords room to expand into the silence between them. The barely conceived anger of ‘Angels’, on the other hand, reserves an important role for Bobbi’s saxophone, the strained sounds of which seem to come straight out of the earth underneath her. It’s one of the best tracks of the night and we hope it will be included on Nilüfer Yanya’s debut album which is set for release early in 2019.

Of the tracks that have been released, though, ‘Thanks For Nothing’ (which reminds us of Flowers) remains her best, and tonight is no exception. Third on the setlist, it gains an impatient edge in its live performance, allowing Yanya to shred on guitar like she does. Similarly, ‘Baby Luv’, which comes near the end of the main set, is just a bit more jagged and punky than on single.

The songs, then, are outstanding, but that much was already known. Nilüfer Yanya’s presence on stage, on the other hand, can only be felt live. She is confident, and her voice is commanding. While Lucy Lu and ALASKALASKA both get laughs out of admitting their stage banter is non-existent, Yanya straightaway declares that she won’t busy herself with too much chat. Instead, she professionally takes us from track to track, and it’s only during the encore ‘Small Crimes’ that she giggles at her fans and friends singing along, slightly embarrassed. From start to finish, then, Nilüfer Yanya has us under her spell. She is unique and determined in every respect, and after tonight we’re expecting even more of her than we already did.

-- Caspar Jacobs, June 3, 2018