Photography by Robert Altman
One of the best parts about seeing pop artists live in concert is that it’s hard not to be entertained. Elaborate lights and electric personalities are a few tricks that draw your eyes more towards the stage and less your phone. Okay, it’s true that London’s Jessie Ware might not be a pop star — yet — but on Wednesday night, the English sophisti-pop qua R&B singer-songwriter let her wild and sweltering vocals flood Terminal 5, keeping the appearance of recording devices to a surprising minimum.
Honestly, the degree of this performance’s success was surprising. Aside from her radio-heavy single “Wildest Moment” from her debut album, Devotion, and maybe Tough Love’s “Say You Love Me”, the neo-soul enthusiast sings softly and avoids the limelight (she has even claimed that she wants to be a “private pop star”). On both LPs, Ware’s ethereal vocals recall Frank Ocean and smoky ’80s-era R&B, appropriately layered over cool, bare-bones production. But occasionally, Ware belts ferocious musical gems comparable to those of Beyoncé or Whitney Houston. It was hard to guess which it was going to be.
The night opened with the funky, Brooklyn-by-way-of-Miami Jesse Boykins III. Donning a Williamsburg-friendly dashiki, Boykins’ psychedelic, neo-soul shakeup was as impressive as his artistic gangly flailing. An R&B enthusiast, the eccentric crooner soon had the crowd warmed up with his sultry rhythms, even winning a few over into shimmying along to the bass-heavy grooves.
Anticipation lingered in the air as Ware’s band members took their positions onstage — her former drummer Dornik Leigh filled in for her current one due to visa issues — leaving fans to hurriedly guess what track would kick off the night’s set. Considering the sold-out show’s line of early birds hoping to get a decent spot, the chippering fervor was one more reminder of Ware’s growing stateside popularity. So it goes without saying that there were echoes of screams when the all-black-clad songstress emerged from the smoke, practically model-like in her bath of stage light.
Possibly aware that some questioned whether she could put on an electrifying, or at least exciting, performance, Ware dove straight into her Devotion’s elctro-bluesy “Running”, dissolving that thought immediately. Guided by her band’s hybridized backing of synth-heavy jazz and funk, Ware coolly strutted across the stage throughout the show. Pillow-y tracks such as “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe” were elevated from perfect cuddling soundtracks to anthems you could even shake your head to. Hell, you could practically see the piercing hooks from “Champagne Kisses” and “Tough Love” send excited chills down the crowd members’ backs.
Given the number of collaborators that Ware has amassed and could have possibly brought on stage (SBTRKT, Nicki Minaj, Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, who happened to be chilling on the top floor), it was surprising that only a Twitter contest winner named Gran and his girlfriend ended up in that spot. Yet seeing Gran get down on his knee for their engagement had probably more impact than any celebrity verse. Ware herself jumped around child-like and giddy, hugging the newly engaged couple and shouting, “Mazel Tov” before laying down the saccharine, romantic sparks of “You & I (Forever)”.
In the span of an hour and a half, Ware managed to barrel through a chunk of her albums with practically zero hiccups (the eardrum-bursting feedback moment was forgivable). At times it seemed like the show would never end, although because this was her last New York show for a while (so she claimed), that probably would’ve been all too welcomed.
But it wasn’t just the music that kept fans waiting for more, though. Her coquettish potty mouth, sheer intimacy, and a smoking swagger mixed with stoic coolness — all of which made it hard to believe this is the same person who once called herself a “mommy’s girl” in an interview — had her fans falling head over heels for her. By the end of the encore-less set, most of the emotionally drained audience left with a newfound understanding of the UK darling: a fluid artist whose music changes with the surroundings. Needless to say, many are already keeping their eyes out not only for her next record announcement, but also the next time this party will be in town.
Tough Love/Keep on Lying
You & I (Forever)/Sweet Talk
The Way We Are
No to Love
Taking in Water
Want Your Feeling
Say You Love Me