It's midway through a murky November Friday evening and the Union Chapel is rocking to a mega DJ set from Nitin Sawhney. Okay, giveaways like live musicians, and musical instruments, plus the hardwood pews and churchy gorgeousness of the venue are all evidence this is definitely a live gig. But behind the moody cello, soaring flute and Nitin's rippling flamenco guitar, there's a set list calibrated with the precision of one of his fabled stints behind the decks at superclubs like Fabric.
Has anyone ever got a crowd going with a gig based on a concept album about immigration before? They have now. The setlist is dominated by ‘Last Days of Meaning’, his latest record, about a sour old loner and his fear of “bloody immigrants”. The album is a war of words; spoken rants from miserable xenophobe Donald Meaning, voiced by John Hurt, with a counter-insurgence of songs that circle the world for influences, from Delta blues to classical Indian music, and then drench them in heart-melting melody.
Google the reviews if you want proof of the quality of the tunes. But in this setting, they're amplified by the magic of the venue, the buzz of the crowd, and THAT running order, which ratchets up the intensity bit by bit, then keeps it there, hitting a sweet spot time and time again. Played live, the songs take on a hyper-intense existence of their own; fierce flamenco tunes crackle like early Bonfire Night fireworks, while funked-up tablas ramp audience frustration up to 11, teasing a crowd desperate to get up and dance; 'Sunset' gets a makeover, propelled by shuffling breakbeats, and Nicki Wells' timeless Sanskrit vocals, shimmering over a droning cello, transport the wide-eyed, ecstatic punters to another planet.
There are no lulls; no saggy bits; no temptation to yawn, covertly look at your watch or slope off to the bar. Seriously impressive considering Nitin, the main man, is parked behind a guitar stage right, in the shadows. He leaves the spotlight to a bunch of casually dressed musicians and singers who are big (really big) on talent – but not on showbiz glitz; if they bodge it or hit a bum note, there's no Britney Spears-type razzle dazzle to fall back on.
To get a respectful, fully seated, post-teenage audience shaking their butts is one thing; to get them whooping like a gang of City boys on a night out at Spearmint Rhino throughout your songs (even the slow ones), means you're in an entirely different zone talent-wise. Nitin looks entirely unphased, like it's all in a day's work, as he strolls off to a standing ovation. The musicians in the audience – and there must be loads of them – are all green-eyed. You just know it.
He returns to punch out a one-song encore; ‘Prophesy’. It's just him attacking his guitar, wing-manned by a fleet-handed tabla player, who is left drained and reaching for a hankie to mop his brow come his final flourish. Nitin gets his second standing ovation of the night and returns the compliment, applauding the crowd before leaving the stage as unobtrusively as he arrived. A nice touch, but he needn't have done it – tonight, the pleasure's all theirs.