British R&B singer Lianne La Havas and the crowd at the Civic Theatre shared a moment Saturday night.
No musician says to the people who came to the show, “On a scale of one to 10, you’re a six,” but when Lianne La Havas giddily thanked the audience again and again at the Civic Saturday, it felt pretty genuine. At the end of the encore, the keyboard player stood on his stool to applaud its passion and enthusiasm, and La Havas posed goofily in front of the crowd for pictures her backing vocalist shot on her phone.
In a way, it was La Havas’ first show in New Orleans, so she didn’t know what to expect. La Havas has played New Orleans twice before, but each as a part of the Essence Festival. In 2014, Prince brought her onstage with Trombone Shorty to perform “Sometimes it Snows in April,” and she had her own show in a Superlounge in 2015. Still, Saturday night’s show was her live introduction to most of New Orleans as it was the first ticketed show she played under her own name.
It helped that the audience was such a giving one that began to show love for opening act Tank and the Bangas before the band played the first note of its opener, a cover a Stevie Wonder’s “Summer Soft.” During La Havas’ set, women danced enthusiastically to the lop-sided tribal funk of “Is Your Love Big Enough?” and when she sang “Lost & Found” accompanied only by her own hollow-bodied guitar, the crowd proved to be remarkably musical. It sang along on key, in time, and held notes for the full length of phrases. Once she coaxed the crowd to sing, it joined her for much of the set, whether invited or not. Her version of “I Say a Little Prayer for You” could have been in the best piano bar in the South.
The cover pointed rather clearly to her influences. Many of her songs sound like the ones you’d write if your iPod skipped mid-track between Roberta Flack, Dionne Warwick, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Sade, and Soul II Soul. La Havas’ breathy voice rode with felt ease over 90 minutes of classic, memorable melodies, tied to gently swinging rhythms of her own semi-acoustic guitar. Behind her, the bass and drums made everything automatically, unshowily funky. Her influences, combined with her own South London upbringing with her parents from Jamaica and Greece, made La Havas’ songs evocative of a multicultural, forward-leaning clubland—one that promised stylish love and heartbreak, but the sort of heartbreak that leaves you more soulful and beautiful.
I could question a song sequence that left room for a couple of songs after the monstrous, mid-tempo fantasia of “Unstoppable,” which seemed like a far more memorable closer than her Bo Diddley-like “Forget.” The encore songs similarly paled by comparison, but by that point the night was no longer just about songs. Someone in the crowd cheered during the encore when La Havas sang about leaving a guy, and the cheer wasn’t for the clever line or the music of the moment. She was happy that La Havas made the right choice. The audience didn’t simply love La Havas’ songs any more; it loved her.
By that point, she loved it back.