She may be one of the names to watch out for in 2010, but tonight Beth Jeans Houghton chose to hide her talent if not under a bushel, then beneath an enormous fright wig.
That shock of peroxide fibres (think Dolly Parton after a lightning strike) was almost the biggest thing about Houghton, its effect magnified by a cute check top and long, twig-like legs clad in skin-tight leggings. Her stunning voice eventually took star billing and showed why the music industry has yet to tire of kooky female artists.
In the wake of successes for Florence Welch and Natasha Khan, next year you can expect to hear a lot from Marina & the Diamonds, Smoke Fairies and this precocious 19-year-old Geordie. A track from her recent EP, Hot Toast Vol I, has already appeared on Radio 2's playlist and Houghton was a hit at the discerning Green Man and End of the Road festivals. Now she is recording her debut album with Ben Hillier, who shaped the sound of Blur's Think Tank and Elbow's Cast Of Thousands among others. It could well be a canny decision, as Houghton balances quirky subject matter with sharp tunes and a pop sensibility, especially when she marries her freak-folk sensibility with a primal beat.
More meditative numbers came with the mournful, stately manner of Celtic balladry, with the air of an earthier Vashti Bunyan. Houghton even sounded vaguely grounded as she reached a higher register on the dreamy, oddly titled "Dodecahedrons" – it is about demons, its writer explained obliquely. A static performer, she took on a distant air that negated the effect of her doe-like eyes framed in outsized lashes, which should have helped her pull off that Mona Lisa trick of seeming to gaze at you wherever you stood.
Yet still the performer could not quiet an especially chatty hipster crowd. While a festival hit, Houghton seemed less sure of herself in an east London bar, especially when she announced she would switch to keyboard, then proceeded to assemble it, stand and all, before our very eyes.
Houghton was working with a reduced backing band. A disinterested Rory Gibson knocked out mundane basslines, though drummer Dav Sheil provided extra bite to the more skiffle-leaning numbers. Not that Houghton needed much support, especially when she got her keyboard working and proved she was no luddite by looping her vocals to beguiling effect on "Veins". Still, the track that got Radio 2's attention, "I Will Return, I Promise", was the standout, all foot-stomping percussion and a jaunty glockenspiel for that Oliver Postgate, kids' TV touch. If Houghton can marry her down-to-earth nature with the enchantment of this folk-pop fusion, she will make live performance seem like child's play.