While many were asleep, and some were tucking into burritos, a small army was packed inside Rickshaw Stop to welcome Jorja Smith on her San Francisco debut. Aaron Axelsen’s Popscene is known for bringing exceptional talent to the Bay Area, and nineteen-year-old Jorja Smith, who placed fourth on the BBC’s sound of 2017 list is no exception. Rickshaw Stop felt full to the brim, and for good reason.
After a bit of jostling and 2-stepping between people dancing, I find a tiny space just big enough to fit me at least until the show starts. The woman to my right grabs her bag a little closer, the one to my left dances around to the music, her bangs glistening each time a stage light or the glitter ball catches her hair. A guy to my front nervously tries to avoid the fact he’s one of the tallest people in the room, it was a cross-section of music lovers on display. Around 11 pm, the band went on stage under the veil of darkness, shortly followed by the woman of the moment.
The British singer-songwriter, originally from Walsall and now residing in London, has an unassuming presence on stage. As she sung her voice seemed to weave its way through the music, feeling complementary to the sounds around her, like the way ice melts into whiskey to sweeten and accentuate the flavors. The band filled the space which often exists in her recorded music to provide a fuller and more impassioned listen. Her fusion of subtle R&B with soul and songwriter undertones felt grander. Songs like “Where Did I Go” had an extra funk to them as she performed.
Surprises were in full supply from a joyous rendition of “Let Me Love You” during the encore, and a cover of “All My Love,” which while it stuttered at the start was full of playful flashes by the end. The biggest treat of the night was inviting British singer-songwriter Maverick Sabre to join her on stage to sing a beautifully sparse rendition of “Carry Me Home.” The crowd clearly loved what they were seeing, and when she commented on how good it smelt in the venue, a present in an orange tube magically appeared; halfway through the set and she was already experiencing the famed Bay Area hospitality!
Musically, the highlights of the sets were her original songs. “Never Ending Circles” had the crowd vibing pretty hard, and “A Prince” felt even warmer and bolder than it ever could recorded. Closing on “Blue Lights,” where her astutely observed and delicate songwriting were on full display. “If you’ve done nothing wrong / blue lights should just pass you by,” in the current US climate the song feels even more chilling. Alongside an earlier new song where she referenced feminism, Jorja is shaping up to be one of the voices our generation needs.
During the pre-performance slide show, projected on to the walls of Rickshaw Stop, were reminders of the people who have passed through Popscene in recent years; Banks, Tove Lo, CHVRCHES, Clean Bandit, Bastille. Many from the UK, and many who have gone on to become worldwide superstars. While it is too soon to place Jorja Smith alongside these luminaries she certainly has the makings of a conscious star, one many may be looking to in the future. I have a feeling January 27th, 2017, will soon turn into one of those “I was there,” moments; were you?