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“Are We Strangers Now?”

There's prevailing warmth to the cosy confines of the Castle Hotel's music room tonight due in no small measure to the fact that summer has chosen to finally grace us with its presence and is treating the tightly packed audience for this sold out show to a little tropical ambience. Not that there was ever going to be any shortage of warmth in the room as tonight's headliner JP Cooper slips quietly through the crowd to take his place on the stage. To say that this amazing young songwriter is respected by the growing numbers that gather to see him play would be a huge understatement and those who have had the pleasure of seeing him before will testify that when he begins to sing a hush descends and people listen. Beneath a sea of dreadlocked hair a shy but bright smile belies the power that lies within his slender frame and as he launches into his opening number we are met by a voice for which we are always ready but never quite prepared.

With two EPs of his stunning music now available and a third on the way he is tonight joined on stage by those involved in the creation of his latest wonderful release with the gentle and atmospheric string accompaniment provided by Tanah Stevens on violin, Ben Cashell on cello and on guitar Simon Robbs, a man who adds his subtle but technically brilliant skills to not only JP's sound but also to that of a host of other musicians. In addition his skills as a producer have brought to the second EP a strength and quality that this work deserves. Completing this musical 'family' at the control desk tonight is Adam 'Cecil' Bartlett whose rapidly developing skills as an engineer continue to see him chosen by a growing list of fine artists.

JP has combined several years of performing experience with an inherent love for the work created by the musicians of the classic days of soul and blues. Add to that a more recently acquired deep understanding of the strength in delivery to be found in gospel music and you have someone who has created a subtle layering of styles bonded together by an ability and desire to reach out to his audience and take hold of their emotions.An acknowledgement for the need to connect with one another is a constant theme in JP's songs with the lyrics of "Oh Brother" typical of his understanding that our outstretched arms should be there to give and also be open to receive and the wonderful "My Father's House" unashamedly speaks of the need for humility and a willingness to seek redemption through forgiveness. More years ago than I care to remember the revered publication Blues & Soul ran a regular feature simply entitled 'What Is Soul?' - inviting readers to try and come up with an answer to this age old question. Many valiant attempts were made by people far more eloquent than I could ever hope to be and I never did send my letter! But I have always felt that of all the talented performers that come along very few are blessed with the ability both vocally and lyrically to reach beyond the heart and deep into an indefinable place where all of our most precious emotions lie. The few who can have been given a gift to create a bond between singer and listener where tears and laughter can be shared, where hopes and dreams can come true.

JP Cooper has been bestowed with this talent and along with it a humility that makes it even more special. Try something out next time that you watch him perform. At some point look away from the stage for a few moments and instead check out the faces around you - it's all there - joy, sadness, understanding and more often than not a tear filled eye. It's not that he isn't more than capable of mixing it up though and "Halo" is a perfect example of how he is just as comfortable with a slow burn funkiness that sees his vocal flit around like a butterfly on a summer breeze. You want a tender love song? - well, look no further than the achingly beautiful lyrics of "The Only Reason" and an undoubted highlight of his set has to be the brilliant "Learn From The Landscapes" where the listener is carried gently along before being gripped by the sheer power of it's soaring vocal climax. His gentle unplugged encore "While You Sleep" doubles up as a lullaby that he could so easily sing to a babe in arms and also as a fond farewell as he bows goodnight to his rapturous audience. It's a little too late to write my letter to that magazine now which is a shame because I think that I have found the answer  - "This Is Soul!"

Review & photos by Shay Rowan

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