The Backup Singer Who Doesn’t Hold Back: Lisa Fischer at Barbican

Authentic. This is the word that kept coming to mind as I watched Lisa Fischer, best known for being a Rolling Stones’ backup singer, perform last night at the Barbican in London. For those of you who don’t know her, see her sing Gimme Shelter with Mick Jagger here. This show was not an attempt to launch a solo career or promote an album: she was a highly successful soloist for several years before deciding she preferred singing back up. This show was about her love of communicating through music. It was authentic and in the moment.

When Lisa arrived on stage, she was overwhelmed by the applause and, for a moment, I thought she was suffering from stage fright. Whether it was nerves or tears of joy at being on stage, her first song was a vocal meditation that calmed everyone in the room, including herself. She then moved into two cover songs that had a spiritual underpinning, Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down and Bird in House, but defied categorization. She was not singing gospel, blues, or R&B, but something uniquely Lisa. This section ended with her singing the word ‘freedom’ in call and response style. The audience was so in sync with Lisa that she didn’t even need to ask or give directions, we just knew what we were supposed to do.

As if to pull the concert back from becoming a new age love fest, Lisa then belted out a high octane version of Led Zepplin’s Rock and Roll and completely re-arranged versions of Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love and her own hit How Can I Ease the Pain. She left the stage to literally reconnect with audience for her version of Fever in which she danced in aisles with those who were game. The show closed with the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash and, as an encore, Gimme Shelter. Again, done in Lisa’s own style, baring little resemblance to the version she will sing with the Stones at Coachella in October.

This brings me back to the idea of authenticity. Last night I got to see and hear what music sounds like when the artist has no sale targets and no aspirations for personal fame. Dressed in loose clothing, sometimes with shoes, sometimes without, and dancing in any style that suited the music, Lisa was present, in the moment, unencumbered by the possibility of being slated in the Metro celebrity pages like Madonna or Katy Perry. Knowing that she was not catering to an iTunes ‘market segment’ she sang in a style that could not be labelled as R&B, country, rock or blues. Her performance, accompanied by the band Grand Baton, was both carefully arranged to produce rich, complex sounds and, it appeared, improvised. Lisa was at times playful, reflective, sad, tough, sassy. A backup singer who is not held back, but free.

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