Lisa Stansfield - Live In Manchester (2015)

Lisa Stansfield
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Throughout the 1990s, British soulstress Lisa Stansfield held an enviable spot in the landscape of international R&B and pop. From the moment she surprised worldwide audiences with her breakout hit, “All Around the World” (and earlier in the UK, with “People Hold On”), through a handful of albums, tours, and appearances which saw her team up with the likes of Barry White, Babyface, and George Michael—while holding her own with a stream of hits including “All Woman,” “The Real Thing,” and “So Natural”—she consistently made an impression on listeners across the globe with a uniquely understated, yet unmistakably authentic, vocal and songwriting style. Despite record company issues (and health struggles) that sometimes resulted in undesirable delays between albums, she was consistently and deservedly referred to as an exemplary purveyor of soulful recordings that eschewed commercial trends, but remained remarkably fresh.

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Throughout the 1990s, British soulstress Lisa Stansfield held an enviable spot in the landscape of international R&B and pop. From the moment she surprised worldwide audiences with her breakout hit, “All Around the World” (and earlier in the UK, with “People Hold On”), through a handful of albums, tours, and appearances which saw her team up with the likes of Barry White, Babyface, and George Michael—while holding her own with a stream of hits including “All Woman,” “The Real Thing,” and “So Natural”—she consistently made an impression on listeners across the globe with a uniquely understated, yet unmistakably authentic, vocal and songwriting style. Despite record company issues (and health struggles) that sometimes resulted in undesirable delays between albums, she was consistently and deservedly referred to as an exemplary purveyor of soulful recordings that eschewed commercial trends, but remained remarkably fresh.

Having largely disappeared from recording for nearly a decade, Stansfield made a surprising and impressive comeback in 2013 with the engaging Seven, an album that proved the wait worthwhile for fans who’d been holding their breath for new music. Effervescent tunes like “Can’t Dance” and riveting ballads such as “Stupid Heart” served as reassurance that she and producer Ian Devaney had not lost their knack for well-rounded, heartfelt material delivered with just the right balance of grit and polish. Although a few TV appearances Stansfield made in support of the album hinted at some vocal shortcomings not evident on the record, these were easy to overlook in the stream of single releases and a remix album which kept the long-awaited product front and center. Sadly, Live in Manchester—her first-ever concert release—also falls victim to the technical ails which a soundly produced studio session can cover up. The result is a disappointingly lulling set that does not showcase her at her best.

While “Can’t Dance” serves as an ideal opener, it also sets an unfortunate trend for the duration of Live. Stansfield relies on a vibrant background vocalist to handle the higher-ranging phrases, which are sometimes prominent parts of the lead melody. Though she is wise to not overshoot her limits by reaching for colossal notes or overdoing the complicated riffs inherent to some tunes, it’s quite a letdown to hear her frequently stifled by the melodies which she once brought to life with grace and charisma. On the celebratory “The Real Thing,” her skipping over the ends of lines and transitional peaks translates to a less than thrilling intepretation of the song’s assertive, feel-good lyrics. Meanwhile, her casual handling of the chorus on “8-3-1” is a far cry from the conviction she showed on the original 2001 recording. Fortunately, she has learned to pace herself within the confines of her voice that were once not so clear. As a result, the much-loved “Change” finds her sounding considerably crisper and more assured than on the aforementioned selections. While she still makes alterations to the lengths of notes and the tonal delivery which neglect the energy of earlier career performances, the “changes” here come across more as stylistic choices than as lapses in stamina.

In tackling her newer repertoire, Stansfield shows a bit more confidence, particularly on the defiant “Picket Fence” and the moody “The Rain.” Handling the seguing of lines and variations in dynamics with notably more aplomb, these performances are rays of hope in a somewhat troubling storm. But things end on a more wistful note with the closing number, “All Around the World.” Clearly vocally spent after an hour and a half, Stansfield resorts to that all-too-familiar, all-too-unforgiveable tactic of having the audience sing substantial chunks of the melody (in this case, the pre-chorus) in her place—repeatedly. In the process, she throws in a few ad-libs that come across as random and poorly executed. By the song’s end, it is painfully obvious that this is not merely audience participation, but an excuse to get out of an embarrassing situation, as she quickly screeches one note of the final refrain before handing things over almost entirely to the crowd.

Ultimately, Live in Manchester is likely to serve more as a footnote in the collections of diehard Stansfield fans than as an exemplary centerpiece for the bulk of listeners who associate her most with her glory days of the early ‘90s. Despite being backed by a capable rhythm section that keeps the pace of the show at least moving satisfactorily, Stansfield is unable here to effectively evoke the emotion and finesse which she showed to the world for more than a decade. Perhaps due to her history as a heavy smoker, her voice has not aged as gracefully as one would have hoped. But whatever the reason for the frail delivery, this debut live set never quite gets off the ground before coming to a dead end. Not recommended.

by Justin Kantor

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