Brits Are Here

Emeli Sande , described as "the next Adele," will perform at TLA on Oct. 9.
Emeli Sande , described as "the next Adele," will perform at TLA on Oct. 9.

. . .and they're coming to a music venue near you

Posted: September 19, 2012

HOLY PRIME minister. Have the Brits landed, beaten back the tea-party crowd, taken over control of the Colonies again?

You might think so, what with all the great concert attractions ruling America's first capital this week.

There's a virtual new British invasion happening here, from the leather-lunged, eerily haunting siren's wails of Florence and the Machine at the Susquehanna Bank Center on Tuesday, to breezy retro soul singer Michael Kiwanuka at the Trocadero on Thursday, with worthy U.K. exports Foy Vance and Marcus Foster in support slots.

There's also a lot of sensitive singer-songwriter fare competing for attention this weekend. Up-and-comer Ben Howard headlines Friday night at Union Transfer. Two nights later, red-hot Ed Sheeran and special guest Passenger land at the River Stage of Penn's Landing. "Too bad we weren't on the same night as Ben [Howard]," said Passenger [a/k/a Michael Rosenberg], "so we could get together afterwards for a cheeky beer."

"We actually play Michael Kiwanuka's album as the intermission music between our sets," noted Sheeran in a separate meeting of the Brit pop booster club. "The man's fantastic."

There's more where that came from - including a most notable show early next month with Emeli Sande (TLA, Oct. 9) - hailed by many a European music critic as "the next Adele."

Underscoring their esteemed status at home, both Sande and Sheeran earned prominent performance placements at the closing-night spectacle of the London Summer Olympics. "Now to come over to the States, it does feel a little weird, like starting all over again," Sande shared in a recent chat.

Thanks to decent U.S. radio play, ripe tour placement as opening act for both Snow Patrol and Taylor Swift, offbeat videos (one with "Harry Potter" film star Rupert Grint) and a song co-writing credit on the red-hot album by fellow Brits One Direction, things are now exploding in the States for the carrot-tressed Sheeran.

Although initially booked into TLA, his local date sold out so fast that Live Nation quickly relocated the event to the much more accommodating River Stage at Penn's Landing. That's since sold out, too.

"The same thing's happened pretty much everywhere on this tour," Sheeran enthused in our chat. "Don't want this thing to blow up too big, though," added the soloing singer and strummer of a 3/4-sized "Mini" Martin guitar. "I'd rather play multiple nights in a smaller place than have to face too big a crowd and not be able to connect with everyone."

British-born of Ugandan descent, Michael Kiwanuka's warm and fuzzy, head-nodding and shoulder-swaying soul/folk anthems have won favorable comparisons to the work and tone of Bill Withers, Richie Havens and Terry Callier. "All great company to be keeping," Kiwanuka said in a call from Paris - one of the burgeoning international artist's strongholds. Norway and Germany are others, he added. "Things are going very well - but the U.S. is another challenge, entirely."

"Truth is, you go where the work is," said Passenger/Rosenberg, whose biggest following these days is in Australia. Like showmate Sheeran, Passenger honed his craft "busking on the streets. My initial motivation was to raise money to make a recording - and I earned enough to put out several. But busking became important and fun in and of itself, as a very immediate and effective way to connect with people and see what's working and what's not.

"Five years ago, clubs wouldn't have guys like me or Ed, or even many rock bands, because all we could draw was 20 people," he continued. "At the same time, they could book a DJ and the place would be packed, everyone going mad. Now it seems to be coming full circle."

And, like Sheeran's romantic airs, Rosenberg's vibrant vocal tones and kindly natured, let-me-guide-you-to-adulthood music (heard to fine effect on the new Passenger album "All the Little Lights") really connect with a mostly female, teenage and 20s audience. The man seemed pleased as punch when I suggested his work had a kinship to that of Cat Stevens.

"For sure, he was a major influence on me, from when I was so young I didn't even know what he was singing about. I just loved the empathetic tone in his voice and music."

Sheeran and Sande mix bits of old and new. While the former cites the haunting, almost dirgelike confessionals of Damien Rice as "a big influence growing up," he's now also of the hip-hop mind-set - sometimes evident in the lyrical cadences of his debut U.S. album, "+." (FYI - a vintage 2006 Ed Sheeran album found on Rhapsody, "Songs of Life and Hope," is not the work of this artist "but another bloke named Ed Sheeran from the north of England," we were kindly corrected. Oops.)

"All of my songs begin first as a spoken rap - the music and arrangement come later," continued the real deal. And Sheeran's most recent EP, "The Slumdon Bridge," is a full-blown collaboration with pale-skinned rapper Yelawolf, a prodigy of Eminem. "I'll be doing a lot more of that, on the side," ES added. (Yelawolf headlines Nov. 9 at TLA.)

A serious academic sort, Sande first wrote songs "just for fun" in jazz and blues idioms, influenced by Nina Simone, "a woman of great courage and conviction."

Sande got into public singing and playing on the London piano-bar circuit to help pay for university and medical school. Then she scored so many successful song placements with other artists "that I got offered a publishing deal with EMI. So I went to the dean of the medical college and asked for a year off - I only had 18 months of studies left - which he agreed to. Unfortunately for him, the music thing really took off. But it's still part of my master plan to go back to school and finish someday."

Sande said her music became more "concise and successful" when she started teaming up with beats-conscious producer Shahid Khan (a/k/a Naughty Boy). "It took me out of my jazz-piano niche, and it took him out of his urban scene. Then we started writing for pop people."

She also gives props to British radio - especially the noncommercial media giant BBC - for its steadfast musical eclecticism. "Unlike the radio over here, you still get a real mash-up of styles on the radio in England. That keeps the listening audience open to all kinds of changes."

"That so much great music comes out of such a small place like Great Britain, that's something I feel really proud of," said Rosenberg.

Yet with probing, the Passenger man also gives personal props to his dad, Gerard Rosenberg: "a music-loving, '60s hippie who ran away from" (hold on for this) "Vineland, N.J., to avoid the Vietnam War. Dad wound up in London working for Oxfam, where he met and married my mom. . . . I've still got relatives in Vineland, who'll be coming to the show."

So in truth, this "British invader" is really just coming home.


Florence and the Machine, with The Weekend and The Maccabees, Susquehanna Bank Center, 1 Harbour Blvd., Camden, 7 p.m. Tuesday, $75-$18.75 (four-pack lawn, individual), 800-745-3000, livenation.com.

Michael Kiwanuka with Foy Vance and Marcus Foster, Trocadero, 10th and Arch streets, 8 p.m. Thursday, $16.50 (all ages), 215-922-6888, thetroc.com.

Ben Howard with Gill Landry, Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St., 9 p.m. Friday, $20 (all ages) 215-232-2100, utphilly.com.

Ed Sheeran and Passenger, River Stage at Penn's Landing, 8 p.m. Sunday, sold out.

Emeli Sande, TLA, 334 South St., 7 p.m. Oct. 9, $15/$18, 800-745-3000, livenation.com.


Contact Jonathan Takiff at takifj@phillynews.com or 215-854-5960. Read his blog at philly.com/gizmoguy.

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