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Kitty la Roar and Nick Shankland at Scarfe's Bar

Sammy Stein By

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Kitty la Roar and Nick Shankland
Scarfe's Bar
November 13, 2014

With her elegance and style, Kitty la Roar cuts a beautiful, diminutive figure, gracing Scarfe's Bar in The Rosewood Hotel. La Roar is a singer whose confidence is growing, and with it the quality of her voice. La Roar can do quiet, and she does do quiet, but she can also do loud and strong. Her voice has developed a quality which gains the attention of even the most inconsiderably engrossed talkers in the venue.

La Roar is from Bolton, in the North of England. Growing up, she performed with her twin sister in small musical theatre shows. She matured with music surrounding her, as her sister played cello and piano, but la Roar preferred singing and performing in cabaret.

Leaving Bolton, she came to London and attended Goldsmiths College. She took part in a variety of productions but found her heart lay with cabaret and jazz. One evening she visited a club with friends and found a young pianist, Nick Shankland, playing jazzy numbers. He invited her to join him and as she sang, he was captivated. Before long, a partnership developed, with la Roar on vocals and snare drums and Shankland on piano and bass-box ( a sound box used to introduce bass lines) . Originally from Wales, Shankland was classically trained but inexorably drawn to jazz music. They first played as 'Lucky Victims' but have now ditched that name and are billed simply as Kitty la Roar and Nick Shankland. Their reputation is growing and they play at different events as well as having regular bookings like that at Scarfe's Bar, Holburn. While they have decided la Roar is the main attraction for live performances, the pair are also recording an album and it is Shankland who has written several songs for this venture. They began working on the album at London's Cowshed Studios although this has been interrupted with bookings in the UK and as far afield as Beijing. They use various guest musicians on sax, bass and drums.

When I saw them perform there had been a gap of around four months, so I wondered how they might have changed. When I heard it last, La Roar's voice had huge potential. Shankland's technique was playful, and varied between supportive chords to dazzling sections of solo material. However, they had a slight lack of confidence which held back the vocals, in particular. So I was wondering if anything had changed.

They had, and had changed a lot. When la Roar opened her mouth to sing, I knew the changes were profound. Her voice has grown not only in quality and timbre, especially with her deeper range; but new confidence means she's willing to take a risk, interspersing scat into standards like Cole Porter's "Love For Sale." Not only that, she sings each number with her own distinctive twists and quirks, making them different from a standard performance.

Shankland tinkers away in the background, occasionally emerging with his own deliciously disruptive interludes which la Roar can (usually) read before he starts them. There is real communication between the two, and affection which engages the audience. Almost subliminally, the listener was presented with improvisation slotted right in amongst standards like Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan," but the duo are careful, and very aware of their audience.

Playing in a hotel bar, even one as large as Scarf's is difficult because people are in conversation and may expect background music, even from a live band. However, many stopped mid-sentence as La Roar and Shankland soared, engaged with the music and almost other-worldly sense of communication the two shared of what the other was going to do. This evening, they also had with them Ed Jones on sax. Jones has played with various bands including Incognito, and his supportive sax underpinned many numbers. Something special happens when la Roar and Shankland perform —and the atmosphere is very positive. In the future, they look to concentrate on developing la Roar's 'vocalese' where she takes a section within a song and adds her own vocal accents, words—whatever comes into her head at that time, a form of improvisation yet within limitations both intriguing and unique. This pair do not see themselves classified in any single genre, though obviously they have to adapt their performance to the venue. They plan to develop more improvisational style and this is working its way into their performances. Sometimes, a listener is left wondering exactly what genre they are playing in, which this pleases the pair as it makes listeners think.

They are willing co-conspirators in making music broader, and discovering that their style and presentation draws an ever increasing hub of regular listeners. Someone once said "remember where you heard the names first." I would like to add, in the case of la Roar and Shankland, "remember I told you about them first."


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