Jo Harman and Company – Live at the Royal Albert Hall

With a musical background that includes the bassoon (!) and a wealth of experience as a singer in cover bands, the Devon-raised Jo Harman eventually gained the power of her convictions to try and strike out as a singer and songwriter of original material. Steeped in classic rock and soul, Harman is carving out a growing reputation as one of the freshest vocalists of recent years.
Having conquered the so-called 'blues' circuit, signed a Benelux deal with V2 as well as deals here in the UK and elsewhere, she's also constantly gigging around the UK and Europe, winning fans and praise in equal measure for her down-home demeanour, hugely admired voice, and a collection of songs that display a real talent for passionately articulating the age old themes of music; namely love, heartache and desire.
Invited to perform at last year's BluesFest at The Royal Albert Hall – which also featured the likes of Robert Plant, Mavis Staples and Bobby Womack – this BBC live recording is the follow up to her official debut album Dirt On My Tongue, a work that cemented Harman as an all-rounder; not only a superb live performer but a recording artist of merit. Featuring eight tracks, and benefiting from three songs that are not on her Dirt On My Tongue album, it's an excellent introduction to an artist who thrives in the live arena, the songs and musicians here generally given more space and time to thrive, away from the more disciplined requirements of a studio recording.
From the orgasmic rush of Through The Night to the tender despair of Cold Heart, the first two songs here neatly conjoin and demonstrate the eclecticism of Harman and her band. A blistering rhythmic funk guitar opens proceedings, as Harman sings 'Let's work this town, baby/I only want to do what's right' like she means it, complimented by the fast beat of Martin Johnson's drums, and laying the foundations for keyboardist extraordinaire Stevie Watts to let rip on the Hammond as the groove furiously steams on.
And then you get the almost exact opposite with Cold Heart, one of her very best songs; a sombre, tender piece that revolves largely around Harman's ever-so-intimate voice, and the tasteful piano of Watts. 'You got warm hands, and a cold heart' is the song's central and powerful couplet. Beautifully melodic, and climaxing in spine-tingling fashion, it's a graceful summation of love and it's heartache.
Ain't No Love is a relatively new number, revolving around a gentle swamp like blues and r'n'b groove with an unfussy guitar solo courtesy of Dave Ital, who features prominently throughout. Meanwhile, the extremely heartfelt and melodic Amnesty, again mainly built with just keys and voice, sees Ital once again deliver a soaring and swooping solo as the song builds, before falling away quickly but effectively, the music ebbing and flowing like everything else here.
Underneath The River – a song about feeling a little bit crazy, so says Harman by way of introduction –  is a mid-tempo blues stomper riding along a sturdy riff, before it morphs into an elongated chugging rocker, while Sweet Man Moses – written in honour of her father – sees some gospel flavours mingle with another powerful, yet controlled vocal.
Sideways – again, a long-time staple of the live set – is a Citizen Cope song, relatively sympathetic to the original, but imbibed with every ounce of heartache emotion that Cope initially intended, Harman's epic version slowed down with just reverbed keys and voice, before once gain Ital slowly but surely goes to town with another expressive solo. Better Woman closes the set, returning to the good time classic rock structures of lead song Through The Night.
With of a love of classic rock, blues, gospel and soul from the 60s and 70s – The Stones, Joplin, Staples, Aretha et al – and featuring a band with similar musical passions, Harman and co have that rare ability to be both economical and full of flair when the moment demands. Superbly recorded by the BBC, the instrumentation and vocals are clear, the dynamism of the show caught as well as could be, complete with audience reaction, indicating throughout that this was indeed a great performance.
Jeff Hemmings