Beth Jeans Houghton's first EP, back in 2009, was called Hot Toast Vol 1, and she briefly looked like being, well, the toast of the nu-folk scene. Now there's a new album, Your Truly, Cellophane Nose, and she's become a bit huffy about being pigeonholed as folk. Which is understandable, as although it's got a bit of fiddle, the album also make use of military drums and trumpet, baroque arrangements, mildly irksome spoken word, sprightly pop-catchy melodies, trippy lyrics, and – most distinctly – her operatic vocals. She even plays an electric, ok?
All this translates surprisingly well to a live performance. Her band, the Hooves of Destiny (wearing hoof-print tees), is five geeky guys strong, and they provide a joyous clatter and layered clout. The drums could be tighter, especially as the jog-trot or full-speed galloping beats often lead the charge. But the combined weight of vocals is more impressive; they manage the multiple close harmonies of, yes, a rather traditional folk variety, as on 'Dodechedrons' - and very nice they are too.
Houghton has also moaned about people focusing on her mad outfits rather than the music. But then, this northern lass is a born showgirl. Tonight, she's in a buttock-skimming blue brocade playsuit, with bouffant blonde hair and a slick of vermilion lipstick across her wide, hundred-watt grin. Aside from the fashion trappings, she also has undeniable charisma. She's clearly the conductor as well as the frontwoman of this band – and wins over the crowd with ease. We're regaled with tales (apparently, Fin, the bashful but dishy violinist-cum-doctor, has spent the day “fixing people's anal passages in surgery”), and there's a medal for the “greatest funkiest dancer of all”. Later, we're encouraged to share our favourite words - hers being 'shrub' and 'scintillating', in case you're wondering.
Granted, this all sounds gratingly quirky, but it actually lent an intimate, warm atmosphere that's rare at London gigs. And while she's got enough charm to be able to spit on the stage and not repulse her audience, without the music it wouldn’t amount to much. Fortunately, Houghton's vocals impress, ranging from a haunting, rarefied strain ('The Barely Skinny Bone Tree') to honeyed ooh's ('Lilliputt'). There's even a bouncy cover of 'Like a Prayer', with support band Goodbye Lenin, meaning Houghton's backed by no less than 10 singing blokes. A sock-it-to-'em singer with a flair for fanciful outfits and a thorough flanking of young men? I suspect Madonna would approve.