Shaznay Lewis: Love filled the air for this All Saint’s first solo gig

Shaznay Lewis performing at the Jazz Cafe
Shaznay Lewis performing at the Jazz Cafe

In the midst of leading an enthusiastic singalong to an old favourite in a densely packed Jazz Café, Shaznay Lewis glanced up from the small stage to the club’s balcony and waved with delighted recognition: “Hi, Mummy!”

There was a warm sense of being amongst friends and family as the leader of 1990’s girl group phenomenon All Saints made her very belated solo live debut. “It’s my first show ever in my whole career by myself,” the 48-year-old Lewis declared with nervous delight, smiling and waving as she recognised individuals in the crowd. “I’m really touched that you guys have come out on a wet Tuesday night.”

The intimate 450-capacity Camden venue seemed an unusual place to find this former icon of the Britpop era. Rather than representing Shaznay going Jazznay, it appeared to have been chosen as a safe space for Lewis to tentatively venture out of her group comfort zone. There was always a sense of sophisticated R’n’B rhythms, harmony and songcraft underpinning All Saints trip hoppy pop, and those musical elements have been pushed to the fore on Lewis’s forthcoming solo album, Pages, released on Friday.

A four-piece band (drums, bass, guitar, keyboards) locked tight into an intricate modern soul sound that aspired to the expansive funk of late era Temptations blended with the shuffling Bristol grooves of Massive Attack. Lewis shared vocal duties with two accomplished backing singers (one male, one female), often with a call and response quality, suggesting she remains more comfortable amidst the vocal democracy of harmony singing than commanding the solo spotlight. Lewis has a wide vocal range, shifting from fulsome alto to piercing falsetto, but I am not convinced she has the nuanced flow and smooth control to really shine as a solo singer.

What she does have are songwriting skills, and so a set that largely comprised unfamiliar new songs about tough love and survival was easy to engage with. She was dressed to impress in a fabulously oversized black suit with superhero scale shoulders, accessorised by earrings that could have doubled as hula hoops. It was a long way from the scruffy combat cool of All Saints in their glory days, and I suppose that was the point.

Lewis initially launched a rather half-hearted solo career back in 2004 and has subsequently operated as a backroom songwriter for others (such as Westlife and Little Mix) whilst participating in a series of All Saints reunions that never really caught fire. It seems to have taken her two decades to find the confidence to press forward solo, and while she has left it late, songs as strong as Missiles, Tears to the Floor and Pick You Up deserve a chance to be heard.

She did not turn her back on past triumphs, as some solo artists do. “It would be rude of me not to do a few songs from my girls,” she announced to delighted cheers. Inserting a quartet of All Saints biggest hits amidst her new songs bumped up the enthusiasm of an already sympathetic audience to near hysterical levels. The middle-aged crowd chanted their way through the downbeat spoken word intro to Never Ever like teenagers at a pop party. “Melanie’s here,” announced Lewis, to a huge roar. Her All Saints’ bandmate Mel Blatt didn’t suddenly pop up on stage, but it was nice to think of her singing gamely along amidst the crowd of friends, family and fans as Lewis concluded with a version of Pure Shores that reached Last Night At The Proms magnitude.