At the beginning of the show, British soul singer Natalie Williams asked if there were any Soul Family virgins in the audience. I was one of them, although in my defence, I had seen her perform a solo set at the same club just a few weeks ago. It’s hard to believe, but Soul Family Sunday, her monthly residency at Ronnie Scott’s, has now been in existence for eight years. It’s primarily a showcase for Natalie and her superb backing singers – Brendan Reilly, Vula Malinga and Sharlene Hector. The band is normally joined by special guests from the British jazz and R’n’B scene. Emeli Sande, Omar and Jamie Cullum have made an appearance in the past, and on this occasion they were joined by London-based singer Holly Petrie, who has just launched her debut EP.
The first set featured a number of original tunes from both Natalie herself and Brendan Reilly, who will launch his first full-length album, The Life Of Reilly, this autumn. The highlight was When You Come To Me, from Natalie’s 2010 CD, My Oh My, which featured a fabulous solo by guitarist Ben Jones. Butterfly, one of her best-known songs, was also superb, her voice soaring as the song came to an end, demonstrating her impressive range.
Natalie’s extended family each had their own solo spot. Vula Malinga stole the show with a sultry version of Jill Scott’s The Way, whilst Sharlene Hector sang an excellent new song she had co-written with Ben Jones, entitled Leave The Light On. The first set came to a close with a storming version of Chaka Khan’s Stay, from the 1978 Rufus album, Street Player, which certainly left the audience wanting more.
Ben Jones was celebrating his birthday, and requested the band kick off the second set with Chaka’s And The Melody Still Lingers On, based on Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s Night In Tunisia. The singers were in fine voice, and the song also featured a strong solo by keyboard player Phil Peskett. Funk continued to fill the air as Brendan Reilly sang Rocket Ship, a new Soul Family composition, in his best falsetto.
Then it was time for Holly Petrie to take the stage. She opened with Not Ready To Fight, one of the highlights from her Willow Tree EP, which was launched in late June. Unsteady Stones sounded somewhat under-rehearsed in a live setting, but she came back strongly with an original arrangement of New York, New York. Petrie has worked with a wide array of artists as a backing singer, including Cee Lo Green and Sugababes, and will be a name to watch out for going forward.
The Soul Family did not make their usual monthly appearance in June because of a private party at the club, hosted by Elton John. Natalie Williams showed their were no hard feelings with a rousing cover of his 1979 disco hit, Are You Ready For Love, which brought the crowd to their feet as the set came to a close. She came back for an encore of Little Did We Know, a song from her forthcoming album, Kaleidoscope, which will be launched in November. She also announced that she would be appearing at the EFG London Jazz Festival that month, performing with a string section, which should be quite an event.
Soul Family Sunday is a relaxed, fun-filled event, and comes highly recommended, but the shows do sell out quickly, and you will need to book well in advance. There’s a wonderful camaraderie between the musicians, who clearly enjoy playing together, and a great atmosphere in the audience, many of whom were regulars. My only complaint was the sound quality, with the main microphone not working properly. Natalie Williams struggled to make herself heard on the more up-tempo tunes, and the other singers – with the notable exception of Vula Malinga – suffered from the same fate when taking centre stage. It was surprising that this problem was not fixed by the club, who normally do a good job with the sound. But I’ll be back for more, and next time, I won’t be a virgin.