“It’s the first time we’ve done it this way,” Emily King confided near the start of her acoustic show in the Spiegeltent last night.
The diminutive American singer-songwriter was referring to the fact there was no band, no flashy business, on stage. Just King and her guitar, with backup vocals courtesy of Jaime Woods (at one point, a local friend of King’s did join them for several songs – more on that later).
King may have been a little nervous about this unadorned musical outing, the first of her two festival shows. But her assured, soaring set soon showed there were no grounds for it.
From the start, her voice swept and swooped, teased and unfurled, quickly drawing us into jazzy, bluesy numbers spiced up with a dash of funk there, a glimpse of Prince here, and the suggestion of a slick soul sister just waiting in the wings.
She kicked off with a series of melodic, laidback tracks from The Switch, the long-awaited second album she released herself last year after parting ways with her record company back in 2009. “Off Center”, which references that difficult parting and the vestiges that remain - “show me how to live, tell me I’ll be fine” - was delivered with particular poignancy.
Later, King harked back to 2007’s East Side Story, the debut album which garnered her an Emmy nomination, with equal mastery.
While she may not be widely known here, at least some of last night’s audience was familiar with her work, creating an atmosphere which at times suggested a revivalist church gathering. There was much clapping, stomping, singing along, calling out of affirmations, and even an ecstatic sigh or two, signalling how successfully King had swept us along with her.
She appeared taken by surprise at the warmth of her reception, telling us with a wide grin, “It really is amazing that you know this music.”
Based in New York and on her first trip Down Under, King was invited to perform in this year’s AAF by festival programme manager, Tama Waipara. No slouch in the musical arena himself, Waipara joined King and Woods on stage for four songs, his backing vocals bringing another sweet layer of harmonies to the mix.
Already in the palm of King’s hand, Waipara kept us there with his easy banter, teasing the crowd for being “quiet”. There was certainly a spellbound silence at the close of “In My Evolution”, when the voices of Waipara and Woods faded away, leaving King to sound a lone, last, pure note.
After two standing ovations and the exquisite refrain of her encore, “Georgia”, the audience had one last surprise for King - a haka. Stunned, she raised her arms in a gesture of surrender. “If you carry on like that, I might never leave,” she had said earlier in the evening. Judging by last night’s show, her New Zealand fans might not let her go.
Emily King, Spiegeltent, final show March 16.