The last time I listened to a Katie Melua song I was probably giving a half-arsed attempt at getting decent grades in my GCSEs – so right about now some undisclosed number of years ago. Since then, I have wondered at which point her music left the mainstream. With eight consecutive studio albums reaching Top 10, I clearly just wasn’t paying attention. At the risk of sounding patronising, Melua’s music has always sounded mature, her lyrics wise, and her rendition of Lilac Wine evidence of her (warranted) confidence. I don’t know about you, but as a teenager I wasn’t trying to rival Jeff Buckley or Nina Simone.
Katie Melua (Mariam Sitchinava)
In early May, Katie Melua embarked on a 12-day UK tour to celebrate her 9th studio album Love & Money. The tour is nearing the end and tonight’s gig is in London at the Royal Albert Hall, a 152-year-old, Grade I listed concert hall which has previously been host to the biggest names in music. There’s an announcement over the tannoy that the performance is about to begin and we all shuffle to our seats. Within five minutes, the singer-songwriter follows her four-piece band on stage right on cue. I have a feeling that tonight’s concert is going to run like clockwork, there’s no messing about at a venue which is fit for a king (literally) and if I squint hard enough, of the ~5,000 seats in the auditorium I can spot four (maybe five at a push) empty seats.
As Katie opens the evening with Joy, a gentle song from Album no. 8, I take a sip of my small glass of house red, because a venue with ‘Royal’ in the name comes with royal prices. She’s wearing a silky golden floor-length gown and white trainers, and most in the audience do look very chic. I’ve obviously missed the memo, in my shacket and holey Vivos, but I should have known better. The stage design is understated and minimalist, hiding in its shadows 9,999 pipes from the second largest organ in the UK – fun fact.
The 38-year-old thanks the audience for an “incredibly special show” as it’s the only one of this tour that is being recorded and she lets them know that “when it comes to making some noise, don’t be polite”. For the first time I notice considerable echo off the walls and it’s a little distracting.
This is a tour to celebrate her brand-new record Love & Money and next is the fourth track from it, Lie In The Heat. She places hand on heart and smiles at the audience as she sings the words to the chorus. “It’s overwhelming to be here, I’m nervous and excited”, Katie announces before being handed an acoustic guitar for Nine Million Bicycles. The audience immediately recognises the first initial notes, and they respond with a resounding cheer and whistles. Written by Mike Batt, Nine Million Bicycles quicky became one of Katie’s best-known recordings, and it’s the one I remember fondly from her 2005 album Piece by Piece. By the end of the song, the lady sitting by my side is already be fed up with the whistling from the row behind. At the end of each song, she’ll now pre-empt it by using her hands as ear defenders.
Ben Howard @ Royal Albert Hall
Katie introduces her brother and guitarist Zurab Melua before reminiscing about their early childhood living in Georgia, when it was still part of the old Soviet Union. Plane Song tells the story of a time immediately following the disillusion of the Soviet Union’s grip on Georgia. Zurab steps forward and shares the limelight with Katie for the song. A beautiful number about a dark past and she sings it flawlessly; her contralto vocal range delighting the audience. It’s my favourite song so far this evening.
Each song has been carefully introduced by Katie, giving the audience access to her personal experiences when songwriting. She tells the audience that during her “mid-30s life crisis” she decided that her life needed a dramatic change, to build a family alongside making records. So as not one to compromise, her 6-month-old baby has also joined the tour. I love this, and so do the 5,000 other people in the Hall this evening. Golden Record is a song about witnessing your closest friends become distant as they “wake up before sunrise, looking after young lives”, whilst you continue a successful 20-year musical career. Katie makes gentle arms gestures and moves delicately across the stage.
Next is Perfect World and you can hear a pin drop. I’ve been to classical concerts where the audience was less well behaved than these lot. With Your Longing Is Gone the pace picks up and the drummer swaps his brushes for a pair of sticks – he’s been waiting for this moment. On a foggy stage she plays Darling Star from her latest record, before jumping onto Remind Me To Forget. Love And Money is the last song before the interval and one that was inspired by the “incredibly strong women in my family”.
The first set seemed to end abruptly, and the 20-minute interval is just long enough to get a drink before returning to our seats. The second half begins with upbeat love-song A Love Like That, and a disco ball illuminates the Hall from the corner of the stage. During the first half of the show, I got used to Katie giving us a brief insight into most of the songs she has played so far tonight, but before we know it, she’s into Pick Me Up. A brief introduction of the band is followed by her brilliant rendition of Wonderful Life, plucking away at her acoustic guitar.
Katie Melua (Mariam Sitchinava)
Katie plays tribute with 14 Windows to Dr Mike McPhillips, the psychiatrist who helped her with her own mental health crisis back in 2010 and who tragically took his own life last year. She can’t quite believe that 20 years has passed since her debut record Call Off The Search and I get the feeling that during those dark days in 2010 Katie wouldn’t have been so confident that she would be showcasing her ninth studio album today. We travel to 2003 with Tiger In The Night followed by the hit single from the same year The Closest Thing To Crazy – “the song that changed my life”. She performs solo, with her band stepping back into the shadows and the audience shows their biggest appreciation of the night.
At the end of Red Balloon she announces that it feels incredible to be on stage as a young mum. I bet! Quiet Moves, from her latest record, is the closest we got to getting the crowd up and moving. There are some serious nodding to the beat with this one and just like that we, “the gorgeous people of London”, are thanked and waved goodbye – a standing ovation slowly forms. A few (too many for my liking) concert-goers may have forgotten about encores and start to leave prematurely. Shocking!
Before the sound of applause dies down, we are greeted for the third time by Katie and her wonderful backing musicians for just two more songs. Call Off The Search gets those who have been fans for the entirety of her 20-year career excited again. The band leaves the stage before Katie and her guitar complete the evening with I Cried For You.
Katie Melua has laid bare her most personal thoughts tonight, an intimate show perfectly executed. Even in the presence of thousands of others it felt like she was confiding in you her deepest secrets. Shame Katie didn’t play Just Like Heaven (The Cure), though, I like that one.
Live review of Katie Melua @ Royal Albert Hall by Dnieper Cruz on 16th May 2023