Simple songs; voice like the grand canyon: George Ezra, at OVO Hydra, reviewed
It would be easy to be a little dismissive of George Ezra. A healthy late 20s from the rock and roll badlands of Hertfordshire, Ezra is the kind of pop star you could happily take home to meet your grandparents. A graduate of the British and Irish Modern Music Institute, handsome in the long and toothy way of Prince William, he seems like a laboratory designed not to offend or challenge even the most pungent sensibilities.
His music is harder to pin down. With its repeated calls and choruses, it blends folk, pop, soul, blues and calypso styles into a simple feel-good mix that’s both old-fashioned and summer-fresh. The melodies are light pencil drawings; immediate and insistent. Most chords are found in the early pages of Bert Weedon’s skiffle era Play in a day guitar tutorial. The lyrics find hope and relief in a difficult world through the most basic things: travel, love, friends, sunshine.
However, there is a twist. Ezra brings to these simple songs a voice like the grand canyon, the kind of voice that comes across as an emotional ambush every time it comes out of his mouth. Think Joan Armatrading, Harry Belafonte, Odetta. Rich and deep, it is a voice born to give seriousness to the most stripped-down rhythmic folk and soul: a beautiful gift; a sound Kinder Surprise. (Just for balance, it also has a nice falsetto.)
If all of this sounds like an odd list of attributes for a 2022 pop star, its appeal is indisputable. Ezra had three number one albums – Wanted while traveling, Stay with Tamaraand this year child of the gold rush — and a bucket full of hit singles. The arena tonight is filled with children and their parents, themselves roaring in tatters to hymns, swaying gently to the rhythm of lullabies. It is not always clear which party led the other.
Because Ezra is hugely successful, these unassuming songs come with a big production. It’s expertly backed by a seven-piece band, including a terrific three-piece horn section and a video screen full of light-up, travel-themed animations. Tall and blonde, dressed in double dark blue denim, amid all the ruckus, Ezra flaunts the slightly lost look and understated charm of an adorable small-town kid in a teen gang flick from the 1980s. 1950.
He’s not lost at all, of course. For 100 minutes, he successfully juggles his high-octane, singalong pop hits with something a little more fragile, which isn’t an easy thing to do in a vast arena. During a pared-down interlude, the muffled gospel of ‘In the Morning’ lands particularly well. ‘Barcelona’ and ‘Budapest’ are thoughtful anthems of a gap year, the former finding a meditative singsong flow, the latter a rolling, tumbling folk-blues of imagery and nostalgia. They are, he tells us, songs of “dream and escape”, often written in transit.
Yet for such a seasoned traveler, Ezra too often sticks to the safer roads. “Manila” and “All My Love” are slick and poised, corporate R&B airing from a long-lost Prince’s Trust show circa 1986. “Blame It On Me” flexes from the colloquial to something closer to the atavistic, before breaking down into a deprecated piece of fiesta cosplay with drums and hand whistles.
Because his words – and his life, apparently – aren’t without angst, just every now and then Ezra broods and Ezra delivers. The hiccuping railway rockabilly of ‘Cassy O’ slams like Elvis on the Eurostar. ‘Did you hear the rain?’ is meaty and heavy on the guitar, while the minor-chord blues-rock of ‘Saviour’ has undertones of 1980s Fleetwood Mac. Neither quite play to its strengths.
More often than not, Ezra battles inner darkness by detonating a nuclear blast of good vibes, offering balm and uplift as a remedy, rather than a deeper immersion in the blues. So, “Pretty Shining People” — “what a terrible time to be alive if you’re prone to overthinking” — concludes “we’re great together” via a chorus so expansive it could knock down walls.
For an encore, he releases “Shotgun”, perhaps his most persuasive and propelling breakout swing. “There’s a mountain top I dream of,” Ezra sings, hoarse with conviction. It’s this booming articulation of a naked desperation for change, at the end, that makes these simple, sunny songs feel more substantial than they ever could — and keeps this unlikely pop star chiming with the times.