The Voice of an (Arch)angel - Gabriels at HMV Empire
Gabriels, HMV Empire, 16 July 2023
Review by David Court
Fresh from their triumphant Glastonbury set – only their second, which seems somewhat hard to believe – and an Elton John performance on the main Pyramid Stage which saw him team up with lead singer Jacob Lusk for a joyous rendition of ‘Are you ready for love?’, it’s a rightfully confident and self-assured band that take the stage at the HMV Empire on an overcast Sunday Evening. Singer Jacob Lusk looks resplendent in a combination of tuxedo and champagne negligee, and it’s clear we’re in for a very special evening.
The rise of the English American three-piece band Gabriels has been nothing short of stratospheric. Named after the Sunderland street where band member Ryan Hope grew up, they’re only going to get bigger and venues such as the HMV Empire (not exactly slouching on the size front) are going to be too small to hold them.
Gabriels are an unusual trio – video director Ryan Hope, soundtrack composer Ari Balouzian and singer Jacob Lusk – and it’s perhaps that uncommon combination which makes them so very hard to define as a band. Armed with the incredibly soulful range of singer Lusk (ex-American Idol star and backing singer for Diana Ross and Gladys Knight sans pips) they’re a heady and powerful combination of soul, R&B, gospel, and jazz.
Their first album – ‘Angels & Queens – Part 1’ was released towards the end of last year and not only ended up earning them a 2023 Brit nomination for International Group of the year but got them placed onto a formidable number of ‘best of the year’ lists across a variety of publications. The sequel to that – the non-unexpectedly titled ‘Angels & Queens – Part 2’ was released at the start of this month and is currently sitting at a lofty number 3 in the album charts.
Lusk is nothing short of a phenomenon and coupled with the orchestration of Hope and Balouzian (who makes the violin sing, a unique contrivance with Lusk’s effortless switch between baritone and soprano) the audience are, from the first moment, hanging off Lusk’s every word and note.
It’s when they break into their single ‘Blame’ (a sumptuous and sweeping cinematic epic of a track) that you realise you’re witness to something very special indeed. With just one backing singer (the extraordinary Claudia Cunningham) Lusk opened the gig by asking the audience for help with some of the lyrics – as the evening continues, it’s clear that neither needed any assistance. The smaller venue size helps considerably with the intimacy of the whole thing, and with a selection of their own songs – and spine-tingling renditions of ‘Amazing Grace’ and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘I put a spell on you’ – they’re truly spoiling us.
It's a relatively short gig – around fifty minutes, but quality wins over quantity every time. They finish with an informal question and answer session hosted by Dan Sambell from CWR, and we hear of their inspirations, the unusual story behind the formation of the group, and are treated to a quick unrehearsed performance of ‘Back to Life’ by Soul II Soul. It’s an unusual way to end such an evening – and, like many interviews, suffers somewhat from concentrating too much on Lusk and not on the other equally important members of the band – but there wasn’t a disappointed soul leaving the HMV Empire that night. They did indeed, in the words of an earlier song, put a spell on us – and it seemed effortless.