“He strikes me as so self-contained—” I start to whisper to my friend next to me in the balcony stalls. We are about three songs through Moses Sumney’s set at the Southbank’s grand Royal Festival Hall, but these illusions of the LA-based performer shatter as he announces drily that his next song is about “snogging”. His band are warming up to play ‘Make Out In My Car’ from Sumney’s 2017 debut album Aromanticism, an album based around the idea of someone unable to fall in love.
Despite this though, Sumney’s album and his Royal Festival Hall performances so far have been acutely emotional; there’s a strange mix of the lonely and the triumphant here especially in the singer-songwriter’s voice. From some distance in my balcony spot, Sumney’s presence times looks a bit aloof; he’ll sometimes wander off stage in between songs, sometimes facing the crowd but most of the time gesticulating away from us. Does he want to run away? No. It’s more like he’s pacing. Although mostly just on vocal duties this evening, Sumney sometimes picks up his guitar to minimally strum chords and arpeggios while his band plays around that; they seem like they’re all good improvisers. The first half of his set is far more loose than the second, jazzy as well as soulful in places thanks to a surprising guest appearance from saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (a Mercury Prize nominee this year with his band Sons of Kemet).
The moment where Sumney starts to become self-effacing is a major turning point, as if he’s just broken a spell keeping him somehow mysterious and separate from his fans. With the frontman in more relaxed, jovial spirits his performance’s second phase is more poppy in a straightforward sense. Firstly, he gets a reluctant British crowd to sing a backing harmony to ‘Rank & File’, before finishing with an encore where he absolutely masters a cover of Amy Winehouse’s ‘I Heard That Love Is Blind’. The way he can hit those high notes makes you think of someone like Jeff Buckley, who can just do that while sounding in total control. As it happens he’s also got the pipes for another song by a female artist, namely Bjork’s ‘Come To Me’, which is as equally powerful.
For the entire evening it’s as if Sumney is playing two roles, switching between this immensely soulful singer-songwriter and a flippant comedian. People are screaming for Prince covers, but exasperated he turns the offer down. “I knew it was a bad idea to wear a jumpsuit, I can’t go to the toilet in it,” he jokes about the outfit he’s wearing, just as he’s starting to tie up the set, “… if you haven’t seen me before… buy my merch!” You can’t help but wonder if the man is still pinching himself at his success, after all he’s now at the Royal Festival Hall already despite having only released his debut album Aromanticism last year. But Sumney knows intuitively how to make his music a momentous, special occasion - which you can’t teach of course - so who knows where he might be when I see him next.