Beth Rowley, Bush Hall, London
Wednesday 23 April 2008
With its chandeliers, frescoed ceilings, and black-and-white prints, stepping into Bush Hall is like going back in time. Back to the days of dance halls and jazz clubs; back when a smoky-voiced songstress could hypnotise an audience using just her voice and a five-piece band; back when singers could actually sing. In short, Bush Hall is the perfect venue in which to kick off Beth Rowley's first headline tour.
Peering sheepishly from under a giant halo of frizzy blond hair, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter proves why she's been tipped as the next big thing. From the moment she opens her mouth, launching into the sultry "Nobody's Fault but Mine", the crowd is entranced.
Languid, dreamy blues fill the room, Rowley's voice conjuring up visions of balmy Southern nights. Clearly nervous, she averts her gaze from the audience, her bird-like body bobbing like a rag doll in time to the music. But then you don't need a dance troupe, spangly outfits – or, indeed, stage presence – when you've got a voice like this.
As a white soul singer, Rowley cannot avoid being compared with Amy Winehouse. They both share a retro sound, and have big voices that seem incongruous with their tiny frames. But where Winehouse's voice is raspy and throaty, Rowley's is as syrupy smooth as molasses.
She can do upbeat, too, and does, her voice effortlessly shifting from sleepy to belting. Both "Sweet Hours" and the catchy "Oh My Life" – her first single, released in March – are the sort of lively, foot-tapping jazz tracks that you could dance to for hours.
With covers of Willie Nelson's "Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground" and Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" she updates vintage sounds, making them her own. Ben Caste's jazzy saxophone solos give way to cymbals and a scratchy harmonica, the Motown vibe replaced by a lazy, folky sound that has earned Rowley comparisons with Janis Joplin and Eva Cassidy.
The daughter of missionaries, she was also influenced by gospel singers, an inspiration that shines through in many of her melodies. It is particularly evident in Rowley's reworking of Mahalia Jackson's "Beautiful Tomorrow".
Soaring, uplifting vocals make "So Sublime" a stand-out track, and it will be Rowley's second single. The audience are beaming and swaying, clearly fascinated by a woman who has somehow managed to blend blues, soul, jazz, gospel and country to make a sound that is uniquely her own.
Touring to 19 June (www.bethrowley.com)
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