Speculation swirled around Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo at last night’s Mercury Prize 2023, with no two people agreeing on who to put their money on as eventual winners. Pre-awards, word on the street backed electronic duo Jockstrap as the favourite. On the red carpet, journalists were convinced that Irish quartet Lankum had it in the bag. By the time we were seated, south London soul singer Raye was the front runner.
When London jazz quintet Ezra Collective burst onto the stage with their aptly named single Victory Dance, they made anyone uttering any other name look like a fool. The second of nine nominees to perform, the group erupted with energy from the moment that drummer Femi Koleoso picked up his sticks. It was an explosive performance that showed more than just what the group are capable of, but what London jazz can achieve too. The entire room was on its feet before the song was over.
Although joyous, the heat radiating from Ezra Collective’s winning performance did not aid the sticky temperature of the room. Falling on one of the hottest days of the year, guests sat holding electric fans and makeup artists dashed between tables powdering melting celebrity faces.
Two-time Mercury nominee Jessie Ware opened the show with her infectious disco track Free Yourself, warming up the audience before we received an Ezra Collective smack round the face. Following them was 24-year-old Walthamstow songwriter Olivia Dean, who gave a powerful, teary-eyed performance of Carmen, a song written for her Grandmother who moved to the UK as part of the Windrush generation.
Jockstrap’s Georgia Ellery brought her violin and otherworldly vocals to the stage, meanwhile Shygirl appeared resembling a wet-haired mermaid and got the room swaying to her experimental pop. With every performance, the circular stage rotated like a giant lazy susan, revealing whoever was up next.
When the time came for Scottish band Young Fathers to perform, they brought with them such impact that the floor rumbled beneath us and our drinks shook in our hands. Frontman Kayus Bankole threw himself centre stage, topless, crying out the lyrics to their single I Saw. The trio, alongside their backing singers and band, moved together like lungs, always in unison, growing and shrinking. It was a passionate, haunting performance that convinced many people that the band were the sure winners. They received the second standing ovation of the night.
The favourite among music industry insiders, Dublin-based Irish folk group Lankum, gave a chilling performance that stunned the crowd into silence. Radie Peat’s hypnotic vocals filled the air as the audience held its breath. Backstage, the band remembered not caring when the nominations were initially announced due to the death of Sinéad O’Connor, who had passed away the day before.
R&B singer Raye has had a momentous year with the success of her debut album My 21st Century Blues. She may not have won 2023’s Mercury Prize, but her unparalleled, soulful vocals are here to stay. An unexpected choice, she opted to go barefoot on both the red carpet and the stage. Whether or not she was wearing shoes in between is hard to say.
Nominees unable to make the show were J Hus for his album Beautiful And Brutal Yard, Fred Again.. for Actual Life 3 (January 1 - September 9 2022), and Arctic Monkeys for The Car. Interestingly, when other acts’ names were met with whooping and cheering, Arctic Monkeys were met with silence.
Loyle Carner provided the closing performance of the nominees, pouring out his heart through rap that melted into spoken word as the band stopped playing, leaving his voice the last remaining instrument.
Eventually, it was time for DJ Jamz Supernova to announce the winner of the Mercury Prize 2023: Ezra Collective. Surrounded by their friends and family, the quintet may as well have crowd surfed their way to the stage.
After giving an emotional speech and sensational winning performance, the group spared a moment for the Standard to summarise their feelings: “Unreal, a really, really beautiful moment. We couldn’t be more pleased. My dad jumped on my back, my mum’s crying, it was completely mad,” said Koleoso.
Before zooming away to enjoy their well-deserved afterparty celebrations at the Standard hotel, Koleoso left us with his one piece of advice for any emerging jazz artist: “Be yourself. There’s a Dr Seuss quote, ‘There is no one alive who is Youer than You’. That’s all you have, that’s all we have, we’ve always been authentically Ezra Collective and 11 years into the journey and it’s come through.”