When I last saw Louise Harman (aka Lady Sovereign) on the eve of her 2006 debut Public Warning, the then 20-year-old emcee was calling herself the “biggest midget in the game” of the UK grime scene. During that show, she downed countless beers and turned the venue into a banging frenzy. But according to her MySpace page, she’s since taken a break to rethink and recover from some of her emotional trials over the last two years: tour exhaustion and the frustrating fallout of her previous Def Jam recording contract. Nonetheless, she’s managed to retain her spunk, regroup, and move on.
Now, at 23 — and ready to release a sophomore album Jigsaw on her own Midget Records label — Sovereign seems like her old self again, but a little wiser. The first two singles caught me off guard, but then I considered that with her musical roots the heavy use of electro-pop made complete sense. It was also refreshing to see and hear a more vulnerable, introspective side emerge. Live and lyrically, she’s always been a brash and humorously irreverent jester mocking the social morals of England’s royal establishment. But now she’s digging deeper and using her silver-tongued fiestiness to express her pain, heartbreak, and career disillusionment with less sarcasm.
As the crowd shouted S-O-V!, Lady Sovereign hurled herself up the stage-side staircase and grabbed the mic. “It’s been a long time, Chicago,” she said with a gracious grin, then swiftly plugged the crowd’s hips into the electro-boogie dance anthem and Jigsaw’s first single, “I Got You Dancing.”
From there Sov filled up the spacious Logan Square Auditorium with her tiny five-foot frame as her frenetic fusion of punk rock and hip hop ping-ponged off the walls. Even though visa complications caused the show’s date and venue to change, Chicago fans — punks, indie-rock hipsters, housers, and hip hop heads alike — were riled up and ready to rock.
Whatever part of the Lady Sovereign sonic you like, collectively everyone comes because her live show is an addictive mix of uncertainty and unpredictability and fans respect her ability to be herself in the moment. Why else would we wait through two opening sets of tortuously boring lap-top-screen-gawking DJs?
The blips and beeps of anti-anthem “Love Me or Hate Me” burst from the speakers, making it clear that there’s no fence-riding when it comes to embracing Lady Sovereign or her music. A loyal and friendly flock of middle fingers flung up as the song’s chorus resonated to the rafters, “If you love me then thank you/ If you hate me then fuck you.” Racing through electro boogie-woogie hits “Public Warning” and “Random,” Sovereign darted around the stage to the synth beats and quirky grooves, dowsing the crowd in sporadic smiles and their own beer.
On Jigsaw’s first single “So Human,” Sov leans heavy on The Cure’s “Close to Me” comforting melodic hook to express how she’s not afraid to admit and embrace her humanity. Even with this soft moment, her set was still filled with the silly swagger that still makes Sov the biggest midget (with the biggest heart) in the game. She’s reconfigured her flippant wit and apparently is ready to sound-off on the professional and emotional struggles she’s endured since 2006.
Though her set was barely 40 minutes and had a few odd-moment holes in it, the show was clearly all about quality, not quantity. And the connection between her heart and the crowd was strong from the start.
I left the show feeling excited and confident that there’ll be plenty of crafty and cleverly deviant anti-posh anthems on Jigsaw. I just hope that she truly has turned the corner and upped her game because hip hop could really use a few more ladies who know what they’re doing and where they’re going.
Photo by Colleen Catania