Review and photography by John Bentley

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

‘The Navigator’, Alynda Segarra’s sixth album as Hurray For The Riff Raff, has been attracting rave reviews and it seems to mark her coming of age as a singer, songwriter, performer and cutting-edge social commentator. Tonight’s gig at Leeds Brudenell Social Club is one of a few dates in the UK where she is showcasing her new album and her excellent new touring band.

The Higher Planes, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

When you reach my time of life (I started buying records in the 1960s) there is a tendency to instantly recognise the influences on new bands. And so it is with London-based support band The Higher Planes. After an opening number with distinctive harmony singing that sounds a little like Midlake I start to think I’m listening to late 1960s Big Brother and the Holding Company or Jefferson Airplane. That American West Coast sound really comes through, with elements of psych, folk, gospel and soul. They look the part too and joke about getting some horns and being a soul band. However, they’re no retro 60s outfit and they deliver a compelling and diverse performance, with great songs and musicianship.

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

The lights dim for the entry of Hurray For The Riff Raff (HFTRR), as Nina Simone’s definitive cover of ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ plays on the PA system. Bronx-born Segarra admires Simone, an artist who spoke of her roots, and ‘The Navigator’ album is itself a semi-autobiographical journey to discover Segarra’s own Puerto Rican heritage at a time when issues of immigration and human rights are to the fore in Trump’s America. It covers issues of poverty, discrimination, segregation, neighbourhood gentrification and finally discovering who you really are.

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Tonight’s gig features two-thirds of the songs from the new album with the remainder coming from HFTRR’s back catalogue. Given The Navigator’s overwhelmingly positive reception and the fact that the songs provide a narrative journey, seen through the eyes of a young immigrant street kid named Navita, it probably won’t be long before the band start performing the whole album. Some older generation musicians like Neil Young have lamented the lack of political and social activism among young artists. Well Alynda Segarra is now here to address at least some of that need.

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

However, this is not a didactic or preaching performance. The diverse songs are just good tunes with powerful and thoughtful lyrics, superbly arranged, sung with passion and played by a top-class band of musicians. This is HFTRR’s second visit to the Brudenell in two years. Segarra starts off by apologising for the fact that on her last visit she promised the audience that Trump would not be elected. But, she says with a grin, she screwed up on that promise.

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

The gig kicks-off with five songs from ‘The Navigator’, but not in the order they appear on the album. ‘Life to Save’ and ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl’ are relatively gentle and melodic songs. Then ’Hungry Ghost’, with its catchy bass riff, speeds up the pace and she’s ‘ready for the world’. ‘Rican Beach’, a key track on the album, ratchets up the tempo and the anger: “Now the poets were dying of a silence disease/ So it happened quickly and with much ease”, concluding, “I’ll keep on fighting till the end”. There’s some brilliant, subtle guitar work from guitarist Jordan Hyde, while the band play a Latin-inspired rhythm. The intensity continues with the title track ‘The Navigator’, another pivotal point of the album. Both these tracks show that angry songs can still have beautiful melodies.

By contrast we then get ‘Lake of Fire’ and ‘Good Time Blues (an Outlaw’s Lament)’, great country-ish pieces of Americana from earlier albums. However, the songs demonstrate what a break in style and what a personal and musical step forward is represented by ‘The Navigator’ album. It’s a career defining period for the street-wise Segarra whose tough early life was once (she says) like a Velvet Underground song. She was a teenager who once jumped freight trains and busked in the city streets.

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

It’s soon back to tracks from that new album. For ‘Fourteen Floors’ Segarra puts down her guitar and takes over the piano, reflecting on ideas about immigrant communities settling in the USA. The song demonstrates influence from another of her heroes, John Lennon, with the studio version even more markedly using his piano style. The set ends with ‘Pa’lante’, the most passionate and rousing track from the album, the song being a sort of concluding medley which includes a roll-call of the names of some of the people she has known and who have struggled through life. For this song she stalks the stage with her microphone. However, the song has a positive message, telling us all to go forward together, don’t give up and to be something.

The encore is two songs from 2014 album ‘Small Town Heroes’, the title track featuring Segarra solo on guitar, followed by the return of the full band for a rousing ‘The Body Electric’. With a “We’re Hurray For The Riff Raff” and a peace sign, she and the band leave the stage. ‘The Navigator’ will inevitably feature high up in any list of 2017’s best albums and we will certainly be hearing a lot more from HFTRR.

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

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