The first time I laid eyes on Nadine Shah, she was not what I expected.
From the reviews I’d read, I’d imagined this willowy, sinuous and androgynous creature, hair slicked back and a steely expression. What I wasn’t prepared for was recognising her in a relatively short, bob cut, smiling body with a bubbly, welcoming Geordie accent – someone who looks both friendly and accessible, passionate and steadfast, and who switches with a twitch of the lips between statuesque model to someone any of us might know. While I would have loved to have seen the Nadine Shah of the Fool video — a brutally cutting song, therefore my favourite — this new version of her (in my mind, at least) was an unexpected delight.
“You my sweet are a fool, you my sweet are plain and weak,
Go let the other girls indulge the crap that you excrete”
When I saw her first in Sheffield, I made the mistake of drinking more than I’d thought. I endured the supporting act that was entirely not to my taste, and then I danced. Oh god, how I danced. For music that I’d usually listen to in the bath, I danced my arse off, and had an incredible time – even if, at the end, I couldn’t quite remember which songs were played.
So the next time my opportunity came around, I was ready. I wasn’t going to drink. I had a broken foot but, luckily for me, the venue at which she was playing was hugely accommodating, reserving a sofa right to the side of the stage. So what that my vision was mostly blocked: my pain was alleviated, I got to enjoy the show, and every now and then I had a clear view to stare in slack-jawed passion at this incredible woman, whose incredible beauty seems entirely unknown to her.
She’s passionate, she’s expressive, and she dances like no one’s watching – even when a room of people who have paid to see her are in fact watching – and I can’t help but respect the Patti Smith-esque display. Every droplet of emotion heard in her songs turns into a tidal wave when seen live. You know the way most people can’t help but clutch their fists in the air to power ballads? That’s how Nadine looks when she’s performing – like I imagine I look when I’m singing along with gusto, but probably much more impressive.
But it’s no wonder this passion comes through in her live shows. Her newest album, Holiday Destination, is more widely political than either of her two previous albums. She sings about the despairs of 2016; living in a Trump-ruled world; and perhaps closest to her heart the refugee crisis (as the daughter of two immigrants, it would be difficult not to feel strongly about this). Her songs vary in tone from dark and anguished to full of joy, but even the more upbeat of her collections tend to be sarcastic, even cruel. With this album especially she rockets between total despair and inspired hope; especially in Mother Fighter, her ode to political activist Raghda who was featured in A Syrian Love Story. Casting off the more commercial, radio-friendly hits of her previous album Fast Food (by no means an insult – music can be meaningful and accessible at the same time) and the smoke-filled jazz lounge set of Love Your Dum and Mad, Holiday Destination is more of a call to arms than anything else.
Where would you have them go,
A generation searching for a home?
During the performance, she spoke about the importance of artists in discussing politics. So many fans try to discourage artists and especially musicians from becoming political, and Shah has been particularly praised for highlighting issues such as the Trump administration, the refugee crisis and more — but she wanted to know how any artist could remain apolitical in times like this. Although I could name a few bands that have released songs about Trump, Brexit and refugee crises, they’re often bands like Depeche Mode that have always been political. For me, the greater question is how can any artist who sees what’s happening in the world not want to write about it? The answer is, unfortunately, “easily”.
“Cruel 2016 was the year that took our idols,
What is there left to inspire us with a fascist in the White House?”
Making the night even more special was her live backing band. Featuring collaborator Ben Hillier among other seasoned session musicians, they weren’t just a humble backup — everyone on stage worked together, regularly smiling at each other and grooving along to the music. Combined with her effortless vocal acrobatics which from honey-smooth to hauntingly husky, the entire band’s presence and undeniable skill kept the audience enraptured.
I can’t wait to see what Nadine (that’s Nay-dine, not Nuh-dine) comes up with for her next album – especially if she does decide to do something separate from her long-time collaborator (and all-round music legend) Ben Hillier. With a track record for one album every three years, I hope to be enjoying and appreciating her newest offerings in 2019!