Nick Hakim – The Dome, Tufnell Park, 19/4/17

Brooklyn-based Nick Hakim is a hard man to pigeonhole. His first two EPs, Where Will We Go Parts 1 & 2, were spaced-out and soulful affairs, filled with carefully-placed chords and sumptuous harmonies. He sounded like Fleet Foxes crossed with Otis Redding slowed down to a glacially chilled-out pace. It made for a beautiful, melancholy experience.

Now he’s kicked things up a notch with the first two singles from his debut album, Green Twins (due out in May). There’s a thicker backbeat in evidence, more Motown swing behind his neo-soul crooning. R&B is creeping in. It’s this version of the man that’s in evidence tonight, and after the calm of his earlier studio work, it’s a powerful experience.

Bumbling onstage behind his band (one of whom sports an amusing bobble hat), Hakim isn’t the most preoccupying figure. He’s dressed in dark, baggy clothes, with a Fidel Castro cap pulled low over his eyes. The aquiline face on the posters is hidden behind an enormous beard. He looks like a well-to-do hobo who’s got lost.

But oh my good gracious, when he starts to sing, the world stands still. The band are absolutely rock solid, held together by a deliciously funky rhythm section that has the crowd enthusiastically head-grooving away within seconds. Over them, Hakim soars.

His songs are tender and open to improvisation, and he exercises an impressive vocal range, moving from an anguished whisper to full-blown James Brown scream at a moment’s notice. It’s his passion that gets you – quivering and gesturing like a Deep South preacher, rolling his eyes in his head, waving his guitar like a teacher’s cane, and then beaming broadly at the crowd’s appreciative reactions. He’s like a man possessed, and it’s impressive to watch, particularly as it all seems to come from such a decidedly un-showy human.

This was a happy gig filled with high-quality music. Artists this relatively obscure are often unknown for a reason. Not so with Hakim. His songs have a beautiful depth to them, and the band he has assembled knock them out with not just precision, but real feeling and flair.

There was an unexpected highlight in the form of keyboard player Jake Sherman singing ‘For Once In My Life’ through a vocoder, sounding like a massed choir of androids, and I also particularly enjoyed watching the guitarist waving to his friends like a gleeful three-year old.

Even better, Hakim seemed genuinely surprised and pleased at being received so warmly by the London crowd. The applause regularly continued long after he had tried to move the set along. There’s a good reason for that – the man is a class act.

Nick Hakim will be back in London playing Koko Camden on 8/11/17, as part of a wider UK tour