Everybody loves a comeback. With Frankie Oliver, it’s the same old story with an honest London twist. Once a reggae singer signed to Island Records, Oliver quit back in the 90s to spend more time with his family, and took a job as a London cabbie instead. Two decades later, with comeback album ‘Here I Am’ fresh off the presses and lead single ‘Tell Me’ on the radio 2 playlist, Frankie Oliver leapt back onto the stages of Soho’s 100 Club for a one-night-only album launch performance. Showcasing his new soul-drenched sound, and proving twenty years hasn’t let his smile slip.
Things were heating up before Oliver even appeared. His ten piece backing band, once they’d lazily assembled themselves, kicked off proceedings with a brass-led jam. Like the Chicago soul stars of old, Oliver jogged onto stage to his own sizzling overture. After coaxing a raucous cheer from the cabbie-heavy crowd, Oliver swung full-kilter into the shadowy backalley blues tune ‘Gone Are The Days’.
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Oliver’s new album dabbles in both groove-tastic arm-wavers and tenderer gospel-inflected tracks. Examples of the latter, such as the Sam Cooke channelling ‘How Many Times’ dominated the start of his set. Though these saw some of Oliver’s most soaring vocal performances, it was when he swung into the rowdier, raunchier material that he hit his stride. Ditching his guitar, which was mostly for show anyways, Oliver did his best Otis Redding impression for ‘Down By The Riverside’. Strutting up and down, inciting the mob of loyalists and beaming like a kid at Christmas, it kicked the set up from cruise control to ramming speed.
The funkilicious ‘I Got Love’ and the whimsical motown glory that is ‘She’s Beautiful’ followed right behind, and Oliver’s vibrant on-stage presence didn’t let up. For a man who’s been out of the game for the better part of two decades, nerves were nowhere to be seen. Golden-toned when singing, and cheeky London chappie between tracks throwing jests left right and centre. Even chronic microphone gremlins couldn’t curb Oliver’s enthusiasm. Then, on a high from the crowd’s eager screams, Oliver revealed his ace in the hole. With a wry, cheating schoolboy smile, Oliver dove into a rendition of ‘Give Her What She Wants’, his original reggae single from the 90s. Throwing call and responses into the throng, not that they needed much encouragement, Oliver was in his element.
Oliver eased off the gas for the tail end of his set. The bluesy ‘My Kinda Woman’ made an appearance, the song that triggered Oliver’s return to music. ‘Man At My Window’, another pop-gospel track with a cacophonous finale, closed off the main set and saw Oliver literally dance off into the wings. After a pause (complete with a ‘Frankie!’ chant care of the snappy-dressed backing vocalist), Oliver returned to wrap it all up. The radio 2 single ‘Tell Me’, as bluesy as Cab Calloway’s breakfast, and finally ‘She Lied To Me’, an old classic with an insatiably danceable beat.
Frankie Oliver finds himself in an unusual position. Though he’s been away, he’s no stranger to live music and once backed the likes of Ziggy Marley. But he’s also, in a way, a brand new artist, and he has the exuberance and flair to match. He’s a natural on stage, at home as any seasoned live performer, and thanks to his high pedigree backing band the whole operation sounds as sharp as The Temptations’ suits. With an unplanned future full of opportunities, Frankie Oliver has a lot to look forward to. He should find the hallowed halls of London’s soul stages greeting him with open arms.