Greentea Peng at Meltdown gig review: intoxicating, but in need of a lyrical sharpener

·2-min read
 (Victor Frankowski)
(Victor Frankowski)

All of London’s hip young stoners converged on the South Bank to see Greentea Peng’s show, part of a rich Meltdown festival bill curated by Grace Jones. Peng is the alter ego of 27-year-old musician Aria Wells, a striking beauty (which is what Peng means; Greentea from her love of the drink) who grew up in south-east London and Hastings.

Wells has been a buzzy rising star for a few years, earning rave reviews and famous fans, but she remains a semi-underground cult artist. Her debut album, Man Made, only just scraped into the Top 50 last year. Even so, she is clearly doing something right, because this performance drew an impressively large, youthful and excitable crowd.

Backed by a nimble five-piece band, Wells purred her drowsy cosmic ruminations over a shape-shifting tapestry of jazz, rock, dub reggae, hip-hop, psychedelic soul and more. This was a bumpy show on some levels, notably the prominent baby bump that the singer recently teased on social media before revealing to the public in its full glory here. She deserves maximum respect for going onstage so heavily pregnant, a bold statement that recalls a 25-year-old Neneh Cherry appearing on Top of the Pops seven months into her first pregnancy in 1988. In a neat piece of symmetry, Wells makes a guest appearance on Cherry’s latest covers and remixes album, The Versions.

Wells has an intoxicating voice, warm and woozy, soulful and sultry. Her sleepy croon adapted well to a broad range of genre-blurring tracks, from the languid trip-hop opener Make Noise to the skittish drum’n’bass lullaby Nah It Ain’t The Same and the luscious tropical jazz incantation Hu Man, which recalled Sade in her prime. The singer’s vocal skills also went a long way to elevating weaker numbers in this set, notably the plodding Saturn.

That said, lyrics remain her blind spot, too often bordering on cringe-making parody with their half-baked blend of New Age hippie spirituality, vaguely revolutionary slogans, and tiresome paeans to different types of cannabis. Wells sounded like some kind of musical Austin Powers at times, stuck in the wrong decade, as if she had just time-travelled to 21st century London from San Francisco in 1967. More Haight-Ashbury than Hastings.

This set was light on fresh material, but Wells did play her current single Stuck in The Middle, a collaboration with veteran UK garage producer MJ Cole, which skipped along on a pleasingly fleet-footed, airy groove. Another new song had an enjoyably crunchy, punchy, dub-rock feel.

The Greentea Peng concept still feels like a work in progress, especially on the lyrical side of things, but her earnest stoner sincerity was mostly endearing while this euphorically received show obviously struck a positive communal chord. Her future, it seems, is still pregnant with potential.

Grace Jones’s Meltdown runs to June 19;

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