Oli Rockberger Rules The Multi-Genre Roost For Sovereign Launch



Whether exploring a gospel-tinged, hymnic solo introduction, which would have had Smokie Norful nodding in approval, or laying down some Glasper-esque chords that lit up the outro of 'Ridiculous', keys player, singer-songwriter and producer Oli Rockberger's versicoloured pianism and rhythmic sleights of hand continue to tease the brain as well as the senses.

Launching his fourth studio album, Sovereign (Whirlwind Recordings), over two nights at Pizza Express's newest live venue in Holborn, and fronting an exceptional band that included Hannah Read (vocals/fiddle), Giorgio Serci (guitar), Michael Janisch (bass), Marijus Aleksa (drums), Rockberger is an artist whose way with a song's melodic contour and expressive arc is very persuasive. From the harmonic sophistication of opener 'My Old Life' and the surprising semi-tonal shift up in 'Vertigo' to the beautiful coda of 'Right Through Me', which slowly disappeared into the upper register of the piano (featuring the great opening line: "Oh the sky fell on my head yesterday"), Rockberger takes great delight in confounding your expectations.

The evening also included a trio of standouts from previous album, Old Habits. The first of two heard back-to-back, 'Queen of Evasion', was certainly eventful, encompassing Rockberger's Nord keyboard dying midway through the song – a quick move back to the grand piano elicited encouraging cheers from the audience – another energising key change, and audience participation riffing on a characteristically memorable vocal hook. Performed as a duet, the mellifluous vocal harmonies of 'Old Habits Die Hard' highlighted the impressive contributions of Read, whose voice blended incredibly well with the leader, while the impressionistic outro of 'Let Go' – bowed bass, soft sticks and a circling piano riff – illustrated the band's sensitivity to texture and dynamics.

Set two was similarly packed with ear-catching detail, notably the magical extended fade of 'The Garden', with Janisch sustaining a fulsome G bass pedal against an unchanging heartbeat in the drums. Channelling a bluegrass-country furrow, the Rockberger/Read duet 'I'll Go Mine' saw the fiddle player stretching out for the first time, then supplying yet more wondrous harmonies on 'Is Anybody Out There?'. As an encore, Rockberger turned to the pop perfection of 'Don't Forget Me' (the third and final cut from Old Habits), whose final textural build-up perfectly encapsulated the impressive eloquence of the music-making.

– Peter Quinn