It's the second stair from the top that gets me every time. I trip on it while balancing a drink under my chin as I struggle with a big oak door. I've usually spilled half my drink before stumbling into a room full of strangers. It's a Monday night at Blacks, a private members club in London's West End. I'm at the Society of the Golden Slippers, an intimate music showcase, and am lucky enough to be watching Elvis' daughter sing in a space the size of your front room. It is so crowded I have to contort my body into shapes I learned at yoga to just-about-see Lisa Marie's feet. Another time, I was so close to the artist on stage I could smell him; on another occasion, a stranger practically sat on my knee and I didn't altogether mind. The Society of the Golden Slippers may well be London's best kept secret, but not for long; Laura Mvula just cited it as her favourite night out and she's not alone.
It is oddly satisfying to witness London's notoriously spoilt-for-choice audience twisted into shapes, sprawled on the floor, propped up on cushions and ancient Chesterfields, sweating from an open fire, listening to music. The sound is crystalline, courtesy of sound-man Simba, while MC Sophia Blackwell conjures a convivial atmosphere.
The person behind these unique showcases is Jen Roberts, a music impresario with a golden touch. Only someone with a particular sensibility could put on such a night and indeed, Jen is a musician with a musician's heart.
"The piano was my first love and I've played it by ear from the age of six. I'm endlessly fascinated by the power and prevalence of music in everyday life. Sometimes I imagine what people's personal symphonies would be like if we could assign a tone to match each DNA molecule...ah the possibilities" she says.
After years working in live music events, Jen grew tired of standing in characterless rooms with sticky floors for hours and she yearned for something different. "I wanted to find homely, beautiful, comfortable settings. I had images of the 18th century salons of France where people would sit around sharing ideas and music" she explains.
When Jen walked into Blacks the first time she instantly fell in love, adoring the sense of secrecy, the dimly lit rooms, wood-panelled walls, deep sofas, oak tables, open fires and eclectic art. It fitted with her vision for salon-like music shows perfectly. A few phone calls later, The Society of Golden the Slippers was born.
These showcase performances are guest-list only and the atmosphere is respectful - you can hear a pin drop during performances and artists appreciate the warmth and attentiveness of the Slippers' audience. It's the perfect space for musicians at a tipping point in their careers, to try something new and hone their craft. Over the years, the Society has hosted major talents including Jake Bugg, The Civil Wars, Laura Mvula, Lisa Marie Presley, Ed Harcourt and Sam Smith to name a few.
One of Jen's personal highlights was the night Harcourt and Presley played. "It was rather surreal and the paps were hovering outside," she recalls, "but Lisa Marie and her husband Michael (who accompanied her on the sexiest Gretsch guitar I've ever seen) were lovely. She gave the songs her all, displayed little mannerisms that evoked her father and lit up with endearing delight when the applause came. I still can't quite compute that it happened."
Jen's decision to put on an artist is instinctive. "I have an ear for authentic artists" she says, "artists who write original songs, have deep souls and good voices. I especially love a great storyteller with a rich vocal tone." If Jen has a curator muse, it would be the much-missed tastemaker John Peel who hails from the same town as her, Heswall on the Wirral.
Jens' next project is to take the Society to a new venue in the Royal Albert Hall. She has transformed the Berry Brothers space beneath the main auditorium into an atmospheric, candlelit salon. "I'd like to think our night is a stepping stone for artists...they'll be back, but in the hall above." says Jen. Judging by the packed audience at the inaugural gig featuring Luke Sital-Singh, she's onto another success. Already, Jen's tip list for 2014 includes Rhodes, Sivu, Ella Eyre, Khushi, The Anchoress, Luke Sital-Singh, Asgeir, The Rails and Ivan & Alyos.
While the music business has been 'Cowellised' into cold stadium gigs, stars without substance and declining revenue streams, Jen and the Society of the Golden Slippers is a welcome breath of fresh air, a reminder that live music can get inside your bones.
Society of the Golden Slippers at the Royal Albert Hall Monday Feb 24th featuring Sivu, Emily & the Woods and John Smith. Entry via guest list only. Details: http://www.facebook.com/societyofthegoldenslippers
All photos courtesy of Brad Inglis