Vivid Live, Opera House May 27
What strikes most about Sampha Sisay is what he is not, which may sound odd given all he is, and has.
There are the rhythms of hip hop often, and in the sliding beat that sneaks up on you a strong connection with Drake, for a combination which is usually silky but never overtly sensuous, whether that’s the waving moves of Timmy’s Prayer or the bounce of Reverse Faults.
There is modern, traditional and retro percussion tools deployed, all of them brought to bear in the roots-to-climax encore Without, which begins with everyone wielding drum sticks around a mini kit.
And yet dancing is not something that really feels appropriate until late in the piece, especially in the burbling intense groove of Blood On Me.
And there’s the kind of ambience - low, dim, blue light - and discreet presence of his three-piece band, who mostly work in the corners or background, for a presence more common in moody electronica.
But Sisay himself has a way of removing the mechanical and making the very human your focus whether in the shadows at his keyboard/microphone or when he breaks out in low crouching dances.
Above, or maybe within, all this, the Englishman is a soul singer in essence and practice: his voice thick and passionate in Too Much; his message one of uplift among pain and (personal as much as communal) understanding; his connections to that early ‘70s black music transition from entertainment to enlightenment only lacking the flute (which the white and definitely not soul Fleet Foxes had deployed the night before) to complete the sound and tone.
And yet, fascinatingly, there seems little or no presence in him of anything “churchy”, the basis of original soul and the template which even secular soul singers use for their moves, generations removed from choir stalls and Sunday best.
Even his tender ballad, (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano, doesn’t have the curlicues or cues-to-soar that would be almost automatic in the retro movement that has revived the best parts of soul in the past 15 years.
The result is songs, and a show, of pop blended with soul – or maybe soul wrapped inside pop – that seems far fresher than it’s probably entitled to and more satisfyingly emotional than it appears.