I first heard about Espa last year, when she released her EP LG60, dripping with sultry soul and forward-thinking R&B slanting production. At the time the only images of the songstress that were floating around online, were striking jewel-embedded portraits that emphasised the ethereal ambience surrounding her music. The intrigue as to who she is definitely built in my mind. Even though the production and lyricism of her tunes were slick and easy to listen to, I wasn’t ever completely won over by Espa ... until now.
With Hoxton Bar & Kitchen being renowned for their showcases of some of the best talent in London, Espa’s headline show had a reputation to live up to in my head. As I shuffle past the queue and enter the packed smoke-filled room, the energy that her image radiated online all those months ago is slowly creeping its way to the present moment, with seductive blue and purple lights setting the tone for the evening.
Much to my disappointment, I have only just realised that I have missed Isaiah Dreads’ support set, which was probably insane. So added pressure is riding on Espa’s performance to lift my spirits. Her band members enter the stage – drummer, guitarist, keys, and two backing vocalists - and the crowd woos and whistles, followed by the quirky creature that is Espa, wearing what she describes as a “pelican” (a feathery black chiffon kimono). The band kicks the show to life and Espa opens her set with “Orbit” from said EP LG60. A subtle introduction to the night, as dreamy soundscapes fill the room and the crowd sways.
After praising Isaiah Dreads’ previous performance (I’m still quite upset), she goes straight into the second track “Still I Wait”, with a booming bass and a quickly delivered opening verse that I was not expecting. And then the chorus kicks in with her climbing, impressively powerful vocals and I am in complete awe. “Rodney” shortly follows, which mellows the vibe once more, and features a guest vocal from Erick Arc Elliot of Flatbush Zombies – and with whom Espa is closely affiliated. Erick blares through the PA system while Espa dances and sings along with his verse. Though he is in Brooklyn tonight, he’s most definitely with us in spirit.
A lot of people in the crowd are largely familiar with Espa’s cover of Craig David’s Fill Me In. The recorded version of the cover didn’t translate well for me, so I’m hoping that the live rendition tonight will sway my view. Starting with a slow build up in both the production and projection in her voice, it is the second chorus that wows me, as elements of garage seep through the beat and Espa starts going for it. This, I realise, is what the recorded tracks don’t translate well enough, and I feel the fangirl within me finding its way to my voicebox as I start to cheer along with those around me.
Espa introduces the next two tracks as two unreleased treats for our ears only. “Now We Know” is a more pop-driven upbeat number, and “Dry” follows suit as I notice Espa’s newer material leaning more centre of left in comparison to her older tracks. “Dry” feels like it will be the track that introduces her to a larger audience (I’m sensing Radio 1 support) and I feel it is one of the standout tracks that she has performed so far tonight. As she introduces her band, out of nowhere, jazz emerges into the set as Espa scats alongside her keys player’s improvised jam. She continues by praising her backing vocalists - Cherise Coryna and Layla Ley – who take their turn to show us what they’re each made of. Each of their scales are jazzy, climactic, soulful all rolled into one, and the non-expecting crowd lap up every second, encouraging more with whistles and cheers. A truly breath-taking moment.
Like a tornado, Espa has spun us around various musical moods tonight, and she closes the show with her latest track online, “141”. By the end, we find ourselves trying to identify our emotions but maintaining the experience of this mystical world that Espa has created. I leave the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen in the similar vein to how I have left the venue many times before – on a buzzing high and not quite ready to settle down in my train seat.
Review by Kat Anasa (@Kat_Anasa)
Photography by Corrie Parris (@corrieparis)