The last time I saw Korean singer Youn Sun Nah perform, it was a stripped-back performance with guitarist and long-time collaborator, Ulf Wakenius. She promised a very different show this time around, and so it proved. For the most part, she was accompanied by the band that appears on her new album, She Moves On. The band was effectively led by keyboard player, composer and arranger, Jamie Saft, who was joined by Brad Jones on bass and Dan Rieser on drums. Guitarist Marc Ribot was the only absentee, but he was replaced by the superb Clifton Hyde.
The band opened with Traveller, the lush, self-composed balled which opens the new album, which featured a delicate piano solo from Saft. Teach The Gifted Children, one of the highlights of the new album, was up next. It’s a Lou Reed song from Growing Up In Public (1980), but I could hear echoes of Bryan Ferry’s version of Take Me To The River, too. Saft switched to organ here, and Hyde delivered some funky guitar lines, and a tight solo. Both the singer and pianist admire the great singer-songwriters, and they delivered a delightful version of Joni Mitchell’s early tune, The Dawntreader, with Nah relishing in the poetry of the lyrics, and Saft offering wave-like sounds on the piano.
Between songs, Nah addressed the audience in the quietest of whispers, trying to protect her voice after the changeable UK weather. She took time to acknowledge the large number of Korean in the audience, explaining, “we are everywhere”, and also her French followers – she has lived there for many years, and the new album is already doing well in the charts.
Her voice was strong enough to handle Jimi Hendrix’s Drifting, which starts quietly enough, but builds to a considerable crescendo, her voice soaring above Hyde’s fine solo, which brought a roar from the crowd. Too Late was another highlight from the first set. It’s a new tune, composed by Jamie Saft, with lyrics by his wife, Vanessa Saft. It’s a gorgeous melody, and seems likely to become a regular part of the set.
The second set was just as varied as the first, and no less impressive. She Moves On, the title track of the new album, is an album track from Paul Simon’s 1990 album, The Rhythm Of The Saints. The tune is carried by a shuffling beat, courtesy of Rieser, and there’s some cool organ from Saft, before an acoustic guitar solo by Hyde. Nah’s vocal brings a warmth to Simon’s lyrics, and there’s some nice to-and-fro with Hyde to bring the tune to a close.
There’s a slightly psychedelic feel to A Sailor’s Life, a traditional tune arranged by folk-rockers Fairport Convention. I preferred the hushed delicacy of No Other Name, by Noel Paul Starkey, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. Nah was so wrapped up in the emotion of the lyrics, she was in tears by the second verse, and improvised the remainder of the tune, promising the audience she would perform the whole song on her next visit. It was amazing to witness a singer inhabit the song so completely, and it brought a real intimacy to the show.
Nah’s ability to make a song her own was further demonstrated by the final song of the second set, Jockey Full Of Bourbon, by Tom Waits. It’s hard to out-Waits Waits, but the whispered “your children are alone” sent shivers down the spine, and the audience went wild in response, demanding a well-deserved encore. The new album title inadvertently suggests Nah has moved on, and whilst she denies the title means anything, she has certainly found her own voice over the last few years. And the crowd at Ronnie Scott’s recognised that.
Photograph: Steven Cropper, www.transientlife.uk