India.Arie: Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

INDIA ARIE is so personable that, on meeting her a few years ago, Nelson Mandela began the conversation by asking if she had a boyfriend. “I guess he was trying to put me at ease,” she says, adding that they ended up discussing her “jerk” of an ex-partner — the same jerk who inspired her new album, Testimony, Vol 1: Life & Relationship.

The anecdote — one of this show’s many engaging asides — goes a long way towards explaining why Arie retains the loyalty of her audience, despite a longish gap between British tours. The neo-soul songwriter is a girl’s girl who finds fresh things to say about the subject of relationships, and says them in a way that invites all 1,200 (mainly female) fans to nod knowingly. “I talk about the things people never talk about; the grey area between being madly in love and loving someone but wishing you didn’t,” she says, introducing a new number called ‘These Eyes’.

Arie, who still does that gimmicky internet-boom thing of bisecting her name with a dot (odd affectation for a singer who stands for tradition and realness), is best known here for the 2001 singles ‘Brown Skin’ and ‘Video’. In the US, however, she is among soul’s big names, her current album reaching No 1, despite one reviewer likening it to “decaffeinated jasmine tea”. (Blame that on the self-help philosophising that makes even cutting her hair a “lesson” to be “learned from”.)

Like Erykah Badu, Arie draws on her ethnicity. ‘I Am Not My Hair’ is a realisation of the fact that her crowning glory — straightened, braided or, as here, tied in a white scarf — is, in the end, just hair.

She switches to a buoyant country mood on ‘Summer’, however, and is blatantly, funkily sexy on a cover of Rufus’s ‘Tell Me Something Good’. At one point she hands the mic to a fan, who sings into it: “India, we love you!” She seems to speak for the whole place.

© Caroline SullivanThe Guardian, 1 September 2006

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