I must confess to be a little surprised to see Bhi Bhiman at The Islington, somehow in my head he should be playing a much bigger venue. As it happens he’s playing Koko supporting Lord Huron, but this is a chance to see him headline, proving a perfect place to get up close, and if not rammed, is all but sold out with a highly receptive crowd of what you might call early adopters. He’s already featured on Later with Jools, and appeared live with Robert Elms on this tour, which suggests that radio and TV may well fall into line. And so they should, as his Rhythm & Reason is a terrific album and the really good news is that he’s even better live.
He’s playing with the highly talented jazz drummer Cairo McCockran, who travelled over with him and bass player Andrew Smith of The Boxer Rebellion picked up for the UK leg of the tour. Andrew also swaps to six string electric for a couple of songs as Bhi swaps to acoustic, but the rhythm section also help out with the vocals throughout and the sound is absolutely first class.
He starts with Out In The Streets, which is given a decidedly reggae-ish lilt. His soulful voice is simply sublime and almost immediately that hint of latter day Bob Marley pops into my head, while the whole thing has an infectious loping beat that soon get hips swaying. Naturally enough, however, the new album is the main feature and if the opener got toes tapping, then Bread And Butter gets things swinging with its infectious hook of, “We know when to work, We know when to party.” It makes the point that migrants more often have a positive impact on a local work force as they strive to establish themselves. It also has that lovely, sly reference to Lady Marmalade, which I highlighted in my album review, and although Bhi is making telling political points, he does so with a smile. None the less the current trend for anti-immigration rhetoric is vaporised in his trail.
The album is packed with Killer tunes and they roll by with such a clip that we get through the entire record in what seems like the blink of an eye. The climax comes with the sequence of the gospel loaded Closer To Thee and the migrant anthem Moving To Brussels, as the room is alive to the contagious rhythms. He swaps to acoustic guitar for Guttersnipe, the song from the previous album that he featured on Later with, before finishing with two more great tunes from the album in Bennie and a blissful version of The Fool.
After some banter through the set, with various audience requests, he encores with Equal In My Tea, not quite believing that anyone knows it, let alone has requested it, but those that have seem to know every word, well almost, as it’s a wordy piece about love lust, desert warfare and arbitrary lines on a map, showing the Dylan and Guthrie steak to match the Marley and Mayfield of his more soulful side. It’s a cracking finale.
My regular gig-buddy is impressed enough to head straight to the merch-table and comes out clutching the CD. As we head home a succession of tunes replay in my head as Bhi’s poignant redemption songs have sticking power and above all offer the positive spin on the émigré story. Stick that in your pint pot and swallow Nigel!
Review by: Simon Holland
Rhythm & Reason is released June 1st 2015 via BooCoo / Thirty Tigers
Order via Amazon