This is a bit of a bittersweet gig for me, so forgive a personal digression. The last time I saw Beth Orton was in March 2006, at the height of her success, at the O2 ABC. I was with my beautiful friend, Estelle Brisard; heavily pregnant at the time, her baby apparently had a ball, dancing and wriggling all evening. It was the last and one of the best of the many gigs we went to together.
A few months later, Estelle, one of the loveliest human beings I’ve ever met, was struck down by Adult Death Syndrome, leaving behind her new daughter, a devastated husband and family, and countless friends, like me, who loved her very much and have never recovered from the loss. The same month she died, Orton gave birth to her first child, which triggered a virtual six-year sabbatical to devote herself to motherhood. Now, she’s back with a tour with her husband, Sam Amidon, to promote her new album, “Sugaring Season” as if nothing had changed, and I truly wish it hadn’t.
Orton is a real star. She’s a fantastic vocalist, possessing a front parlour voice that is intimate and vulnerable, that fractured diction that feels like a trademark. Perhaps touring again has taken its toll – this is her penultimate gig – or perhaps she has a dicky throat, but it’s a little more fractured than sounds healthy; however, that isn’t a problem at all, is even a strength because it emphasises the fact that hers is the sound of a real person, warm flesh and warm blood, human and unmediated by auto-tuning, pre-recorded gimmickry.
It’s an acoustic set – she’ll be back in April with a band – and it’s a great way to end the year. Most of the gig is given over to the new album, and there are some real stand-outs. “Magpie” is lovely, with a characteristic Orton wonky-melody that can’t be pinned down. “The Poison Tree” – a Blake poem set to music – is memorable, too, and “Call Me the Breeze” provides an opportunity for some lovely harmonies with Amidon. Then, in the mix, she tosses in an oldie, like “She Cries Your Name”.
However, the real barnstormers for me come very early in the set. “The Last Leaves of Autumn” is unutterably beautiful, with that heavy keyboard reminiscent of Portishead or her days with William Orbit. Two songs later, she gets a rapturous reaction to an acoustic version of “Stolen Car” that brings more than ever before the bile and the bitterness of the lyrics to the fore, whacking the listener between the eyes like a baseball bat in a way that the sublimely cool album version doesn’t quite manage to. Fuck, she looks furious as she sings it:
“Oh, yeah, you stand
For every known abuse that I’ve ever seen my way through
Don’t I wish I knew better by now?
Well I think I’m starting to
When every lie speaks the language of love
And never held the meaning I was thinking of
And I’ve lost the line between right or wrong
I just want to find the place where I belong”
It’s an absolute show-stopper that comes just a bit too early, and is one of the best performances of a single song I’ve heard this year. Stunning stuff.
She encores some old classics, including “Central Reservation”, and she finishes with “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine“, the saddest singalong in the universe. Croaks and all, she sings it quite beautifully, as does the audience. It’s a gorgeous song about loss and longing, and, just for a moment, I feel more than a little bit haunted.
Welcome back, Beth.
Ingrid Michaelson’s 2009 album “Everybody” was a gem, with catchy, brainy numbers like “Soldier” vying with more meditative tracks like “Are We There Yet?”, topped off with my favourite, the quite lovely “Maybe“. It’s a delicate album that is impeccably produced, foregrounding Michaelson’s gorgeous, rich voice. I like it, very much indeed. And Michaelson herself – pretty but most definitely on the slightly geeky side – seems like an honest, hard-working musician with integrity, despite her tracks being hugely friendly for the TV generation (Grey’s Anatomy, The Vampire Diaries) and for advertising (Google Chrome amongst others). Most horrendous of all, plastic-satanic, auto-tuned anti-singer Cheryl Cole pinched “Parachute“; Michaelson’s recording is much, much better because she can actually hold a tune, though, to be honest, it’s not a great song, I think. Although I had a ticket, I missed her last visit to Glasgow – a woman was involved, if I remember correctly – but I was determined not to miss her this time round.
This is a minimalist set up, Michaelson on ukulele accompanied by Bess Rodgers and Allie Moss on acoustic guitars. No drums, just handheld percussion, and occasional forays with an electric piano and bass. Her songs therefore sound very different from their recorded versions, but that’s no bad thing; pared down and rearranged, this is a lovely gig that is truly musical.
“Maybe” and ” Soldier” are both fine sing-alongs; in fact, there’s an awful lot of singing along, and Michaelson seems genuinely pleased at the warmth of the audience. It’s a much younger crowd than I expected. At one point, I find myself marooned in a sea of stunning young women; I feel like making a generic old man apology for Jimmy Savile and retiring to the back of the room. And judging by the phalanx of enthusiastic Asian girls in front of me – all holding their iPhones in the air to record the gig, making it seem as if I’m watching the whole event through a massive bank of Lilliputian video screens – she also seems to be big in Japan. The problem with Oran Mor, though, is that the audience have a huge bar area at the back and seating set back from the dance floor which encourages people to talk, and they do loudly for a while until they finally settle down. Having said that, though, the bulk of the audience are perfectly behaved and go bananas at the end of each song.
Michaelson is easily the most effortlessly personable singer I’ve seen this year, Ana Bacalhau of Deolinda excepted. She’s funny and witty and capable of swearing like a Glasgow trooper (soldiers / troopers/ battles / wars are a recurring theme in her music). She also has a beautiful voice, complimented gorgeously by Rodgers and Moss. There are some real stand outs, such as “The Chain“, which grows massively during the lovely three voice round that ends the song. Tracks from her new album, “Human Again”, are great too.
Michaelson complains that her music is often described as “cute”, and while most of those songs – “Be OK”, “Everybody” – are smashing wee numbers, there are a couple that tip into schmaltz: she tells a lovely, funny story of snuggling a girl who was a complete stranger on a train in the depths of winter as a prelude to “Blood Brothers“, a song that doesn’t quite do it for me, I think because of the fractured chorus and the superficiality of the image. She says she much prefers to think of herself as dark and edgy, and despite the fact that she’s a lovely young woman who has the captivating habit of always smiling while she’s singing, I do too. That’s why I think the most impressive moment of the night is Michaelson solo on the piano singing the fantastic ”Ghost“, a real spine-tingler that is much more effective raw like this than washed with violins as it is on the new album; great too is the gorgeous, atmospheric “Men of Snow”. Both are lyrically quite startling.
So all in all a really good gig from a charming and talented musician I’d recommend any day of the week. Support act Gavin James from Dublin joins the trio onstage for a sweet rendition of the cutest and cheesiest of her songs, “You and I“; it’s a nice way to finish, and James is a damn sight better than the vast majority of the acoustic folkie-rock David Gray clones that music has been afflicted with for the last fifteen years.
Definitely a talented young woman worth seeing: if she’s coming to a town near you, do so. That’s an order.
Smoke Fairies are Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, and they produce throughly clever, creative music that is beautifully constructed and exceptionally performed. They don’t do pop; their sound has a definite retro feel, like the daughters of a blissful union between Jefferson Airplane and Fairport Convention. It’s hippy and trippy and really quite lovely.
Blamire appears to be the baby of the duo, a tiny, shy girl with the ingenué sweetness of a Jackie Bouvier, a time warp aesthetic reinforced by the band’s excellent bass player who, in a skinny rib red polo neck and sporting a resplendent blond page-boy haircut, sideburns and moustache, looks as if he’s stepped out of a 1970s Sunday supplement magazine advert for the Vauxhall Viva. Splendid. Blamire has a sweet voice and, in the context of the psychedelic, feedback-heavy wall of sound the band produces, is a perfectly fine lead guitarist. Her slide work is especially effective on tracks like the sweaty, sexy “Strange Moon Rising“, though some of her interesting twangy noodling on, for example, “Take Me Down Before You Go”, is occasionally a little lost in the sound mix.
Jessica Davies seems to be the more self-assured of the two on stage, and possesses a huskier, lustier voice; I like the way she really opens her mouth to sing, resulting in a perfectly enunciated resonance. In harmony, they work terrifically well together. They are certainly a duo, with most of the vocals in unison with the occasional swapping of the lead vocals and the limelight. Their music doesn’t lend itself to focus on any one aspect; it’s most definitely a holistic experience.
It’s really good too. I got their first album, “Through Low Light And Trees”, when it first came out, and it’s a slow burner that becomes essential listening. “Erie Lackawanna”, named after a Chicago train line, apparently, is very impressive, a snarling stalker of a prog track that builds menace to the chillingly delivered chant of”I can hear a wrecking ball coming for the house / See a wrecking ball gonna tear it down.”
Tracks like “Summer Fades” – or “Awake” from their second release, “Blood Speaks” – are reminiscent of the tranquillity of 70s English folk rock, and very pleasant they are too. What they are very good at, though, are infectious melodies underpinned by cool as fuck riffs, among the best being “Let Me Know” and “The Three of Us“, both from the latest album. My favourite, through, is “Hotel Room“, an absolutely stonking track that deserves to be used in adverts for any number of desirable consumer products, though that would spoil the effect. Forty years ago, it would have camped out in the top ten for weeks; unfortunately, music buyers don’t like different these days, and certainly don’t like intelligent.
And that’s what these young women are: really, really intelligent musicians. Indeed, they come across as a bit reticent, even diffident – what audience interaction there is is a little stilted – but that’s fine, because of the quality of the music speaks for itself. It’s not music that grabs me emotionally, viscerally, but nonetheless, it’s music that is honest, bright, effortlessly listenable and delivered with real aplomb. A very, very good band.
The support act, Bear’s Den (yes, the West End audience has a laugh at that) are spot on too. A three-piece steeped in an Americana vibe, with echoes of Bon Iver and Romantica and a rocky Chatham County Line, they are hugely listenable and talented. They are back in Scotland in November, apparently – they are well worth a visit.
Tinariwen are a desert blues band with a rebel Tuareg sensibility that is confrontational, challenging and ultra-hip. There are lots of myths about them fighting across the southern Sahara, AK47 in one hand, electric guitar in the other. Much of that may be apocryphal, but I still like to think I’ve never been in a room with more dangerous men.
They are the very antithesis of a Western band, a million miles away from bare-chested swaggering pomp rockers who are all about the ego. Swathed in their Tuareg robes, their heads and faces largely covered, they are definitely a collective, regularly rotating to share lead guitar and vocal duties.
They are masters of that fractured guitar riff that characterises the desert blues sound. Communication with the audience is minimal – someone shouts out thanks in French to them, speaking for the whole audience – but the music is more than enough. Someone once said John Travolta dances as if his nuts were on wheels: this is the kind of groove that makes you feel that way.
Lots of the numbers are excellent, but I’m really here just for one: “Tenhert” is a fantastic, hypnotic, ice-cold sliver of Arab rap that is just irresistible. One of the coolest songs on the planet, it’s worth the entrance money alone. It sets my wheels in motion, and I don’t stop for the rest of the night. Great stuff.
An electric set as opposed to the acoustic session I last saw, Joan as Police Woman genuinely seems to enjoy playing Oran Mor, and the venue enjoys it right back at her.
“The Deep Field” is the new album she’s showcasing, and it’s typically edgy and raucous, and manages to be very danceable but very left field at the same time. It’s a trick she does exceptionally well, especially in “The Magic”, which is sensuous and erudite and hipswaying all at once, while “Run For Love” is wild and beautifully distorted. She also does a cracking, full-throated version of “Save Me” from her first album. But she changes pace at the flick of a switch: “Flash” – which she previewed last time – is here restrained, like having a sexual itch while being strapped up in a straitjacket, and she is at her most wistful on “Forever and a Year”.
There are a couple of less successful numbers – “Eternal Flame” is a remarkably complex melody and doesn’t quite hit the mark – and early in the set the sound balance is all wrong, drowning that fantastic voice of hers. She also encores with two ballads, leaving the feeling that the evening could have ended with a real high point: there are cries for “Christobel” and, while I’m sure she’s fed up playing it, it would have sent the audience out on twinkle toes. However, she’s more than worth seeing again and again, especially if she continues to flirt with the audience while dressed in slash-backed leather jumpsuits and kitten heels.
Mmmm… kitten heels….
There’s no accounting for taste. While I’m sure Sandi Thom’s recent Celtic Connections gig would have drawn a respectable crowd, three men and a dog turn up to see the wonderful Astrid Williamson support Joe Pernice.
Formerly the lead singer of Goya Dress, she’s just released her fourth solo album, “Here Come the Vikings”, and this is a rare visit to Glasgow – the last time I saw her here was in support of Michael Bolton (rest assured, I didn’t stay for his part of the concert!) in 2007. Since then, she’s been having long overdue success in the States, and it seems to be doing her good: she’s more beautiful than ever, she’s relaxed and charming and her voice is in great form. She’s at the piano tonight, which limits the repertoire a little; she apologises for turning down my requests for songs that rely on a band, but I forgive her since she makes up for it with “True Romance”, one of the sultriest songs I’ve ever heard (“Think of this, all my tangled hair across your hips…”).
She also manages a fantastic version of “Glorious” from her Goya Dress days, and some great new numbers (I can’t remember ever hearing Charlie Chaplin name-checked in a song before). Apparently she has a load of piano-driven songs she doesn’t know what to do with: I’d suggest a piano-driven album, then.
She says it’s great to be back in Glasgow: that’s very gracious of her given she’s treated with such disinterest by a Glasgow public who obviously don’t care much for perfection. It’s just not fair.
Headliner Joe Pernice has a sweet voice and a wicked way with lyrics: this time it’s a name-check for Leni Riefenstahl, and a line like “I’d kiss your ass just to kiss your ass again” deserves some kind of an award. He’s obviously hugely talented - he’s just published his first novel – but there’s a sameness about the performance that has me deciding on an early night. Astrid’s in the CD player on the way home.
At first glance, Nerina Pallot appears like any other popette doing the rounds at the moment. She’s beautiful – very – and kooky and MOR friendly. She’s perfect for Radio 2 listeners on the drive to work each morning (her new single, “Real Late Starter”, was the station’s record of the week recently), and she appears to embody a sweet, girl-next-door image. In other words, okay, but not exactly a musical genius.
There’s a lot more to her than that, though. First of all, she’s quite a bit older than the current crop of girly singers – she’s in her mid thirties, not her early twenties – and has therefore been around the block a bit, which is no bad thing for a songwriter’s credibility. Secondly, she has a fierce independent streak, not of the faux ladette type so common now (so common now) but a real, feisty commitment to doing things her way, and damn the consequences. Her new album, “The Graduate” is the second she’s produced on her own Idaho label, after all sorts of nonsense that saw her first album pulled for her refusal to accept Polydor’s heavy handed influence in her sound: indeed, the new single is clearly a statement of free will ( “I’m the Queen Refusenik / if I was somebody you’d be kissing my ass right now…” ), and similar feistiness is apparent in several tracks, such as “When did I Become Such a Bitch”.
The new album is perhaps a bit of a slow burner: there’s nothing as immediately arresting as “Idaho” or “Sophia” from her second album, “Fires”, though “It Was Me” is a smashing crooner’s number (I’d love to hear Sinatra do it, but that’s never going to happen now), and “It Starts” is a gorgeous torch song. However, it bears repeated plays quite happily, with excellent production, catchy riffs and hummable tunes. If possible, get the special double edition, with a second disc of acoustic versions of some of the tracks; stripped down, many of them work even better. It’s also a good idea to have a look at her video diary at http://www.nerinapallot.com/ , which has some terrific alternative versions of the album’s new songs.
Live, she’s charming, of course, with a nice line in self-deprecation and personal revelation: she delights the audience when talking about her low boredom threshold, suddenly remembering her husband, who she married within weeks of their first date. “He doesn’t need to worry,” she says, with a mixture of wistfulness and lust. She also freely admits to “cutting down on the sauce”, recounting her first King Tut’s gig when, plastered on a half bottle of Scotch, she wondered for a second if that was what it felt like to be John Martyn.
It’s a great wee show. The audience demographic – everything from adolescent girls to hairy blokes even older than me – speaks of a wide appeal to real fans. Pallot’s voice is sweet, sure, but it has real virtuosity, particularly in the upper registers, and is so far removed from the likes of the paper thin Mockney warblings of Lily Allen. She’s also a fine musician, especially on keyboards: she’s more than up to the barnstorming, piano-driven Elton John medley with which she finishes the main set (inspired, she claims, by her failure to perpetuate the rumour that she is the secret love child of Elton and Kiki Dee through her Wikipedia page). There are a couple of dips – “Everybody’s Going to War” could perhaps do with the oomph another guitar would give it – but all in all, everyone has a fantastic time. In the encore, she finishes with “Sophia”, which has become a bit of an anthem for her fans, with all the positive and negative implications that has: if it wasn’t for the smoking ban, you just know every cigarette lighter in the place would be waved unironically at the stage. But the reception it receives is tumultuous, indicating a real affection for Pallot, who responds by bursting into tears.
A lovely girl, and a class act.
I’ve never really got Antony and the Johnsons. Hegarty has, to be sure, a rare and beautiful voice, but all that emoting all over the place just leaves me kinda cold; I once tried to count the number of times the word “cry” and variations thereof are used on his latest album, “The Crying Light”, and had to give up. Added to that is the whiff of elitism, of avant garde exclusivity, that permeates some of his work and that of his acolytes, such as the seriously deranged but oddly compelling Coco Rosie, that doesn’t sit easily with a blue-collar-bred West of Scotland boy like me. I expect him to be Anthony, and to front The Johnstones.
One time Johnson Joan Wasser, though, I do get. What appeals to me most is her pop sensibility, heard clearly in the perfect riffs of the sublime “Christobel” – a song that makes your nuts want to dance if ever there was one and if you happen to have them – and “I Defy”, in which she duets with Hegarty. Neither of these songs from her first album, “Real Life”, appear tonight, nor does “Start of My Heart“, doing the rounds on YouTube with it’s gorgeous Sinead O’Connor-like video; but just to establish her pop princess credentials, second up in the set is a cover of Britney Spears’ “Overprotected”, and the opportunities to dance come thick and fast thereafter.
Then there’s that voice. It’s a magnificent and rich instrument of real soul and fuck knows how many octaves. Given full reign in “Fire” or “Save Me”, it’s nakedly sexual, while growling and wailing through Iggy Pop’s “Baby” reveals its malicious possibilities. But it’s probably at its most arresting when it’s used sparingly and with precision: “The Human Condition” and, especially, “Flash” are so restrained and perfect any extraneous noise might shatter them. She is capable of immense delicacy.
She lets nothing stand in the way of the music, either. Just her, Timo Ellis and an hissy 4-track cassette machine that refuses to sanitise the experience (she describes its sound “Like skin” to a delighted audience). This is down and dirty stuff. And all the better for it.
There are a couple of misses amongst the hits, and glitches with the technology that stilt the early numbers. However, as the boorish Oran Mor staff try to rush her off stage and clear the hall for the no doubt equally boorish nightclub to take her place, Wasser finishes with an experience much like being hit in a nice way with a baseball bat. She was Jeff Buckley’s girlfriend at the time of his death in 1997 and joining Antony and the Johnsons in 1999, she says, saved her life. I wouldn’t dare to presume that that backstory informs her performance of “Keeper of the Flame”, but something very, very poignant is going on. Accompanied by her guitar and a stunning baritone ukulele solo by Ellis, it is the most unutterably beautiful vocal performance I have ever heard by anyone, anywhere, anytime. That good.