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Cleveland Watkiss Image credit Monika S.Jakubowska
Cleveland Watkiss Image credit Monika S.Jakubowska

Cleveland Watkiss at Manchester Song Festival: Review

Home » Reviews » Cleveland Watkiss at Manchester Song Festival: Review

You can often gauge how a performance has gone from the level of ovation at the end, but for Cleveland Watkiss it doesn’t take that long to hear audience feedback. Laughter fills the Carole Nash Hall as smiling faces engage with each other to echo a childlike joy that comes with singing in unison – something I’m sure many haven’t experienced since being kids singing in assembly. One woman can be heard over the rest of the audience saying, “Oh I enjoyed that,” a clear stamp of approval for Cleveland after he takes a break from soloing to collaborate with those in attendance.

Playing the audience like a drum or a sampling pad, Cleveland directs the right and left sides to harmonise at different tempos and pitches with just the movement of his hand, like he is the conductor and we are his orchestra. Nervous mutters turn into a chorus of confidence as a wave of collective comfortability spreads throughout the space. It is a masterclass in audience engagement.

The space, Carole Nash Hall, provides the perfect setting for this performance, it is intimate, five rows of seats split down the middle creating a runway to where Cleveland has set up his trusted looping device on a table draped in black, flanked by two elevated speakers. The hall is almost church-like in its imitation and acoustics; sounds bounce around until they surrounded you. So, when Cleveland flexes his vocal range it is easy to get swept up in the moment. At times it feels like a thousand angels are singing but it is simply Cleveland’s talent and expert use of his musical equipment.

For an hour straight there is a pretty unrelenting cycle of high-level musical expression. At one stage Cleveland pauses to take aim at those who rely too heavily on sheet music, “You’ve got musicians today who can’t play music without a piece of paper, I just think that’s ridiculous myself,” he states to an audience almost stunned to silence. “The fact that if I take the paper away you can’t play it, you can’t sing, you can’t do anything, what is that? The music should be inside you. The music could never be on the paper.” There is no doubt that this is the most uncomfortable moment of the performance, but it is also one that offers an insight into Cleveland’s psyche and ultimately provides context for the VocalSuite performance we are there to see.

Cleveland finishes the performance with a repeat after me style rendition of an original reggae song he made about his old record box. He encourages the audience to sing in Jamaican patois as he has. This could’ve gone either way, the breaking down of the lines could’ve been perceived as patronising but the crowd is really engaged, and it makes for an enjoyable closing to the show.

Cleveland does not disappoint in his headline show, the highs are really high, his talent dictates that, but more importantly just seeing a great artist go through such a free-flowing creative process live is something unique and that alone should be appreciated.

Cleveland Watkiss was at Carole Nash Hall on 1 March as the headline performance of Manchester Song Festival 2024.

Read our interview with Cleveland Watkiss.

Jordon Francis
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Jordon Francis

Jordon Francis is a freelance journalist based in Manchester.

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Jordon Francis Written by Jordon Francis