Shielded by a music stand and refusing to speak for most of her set, Elizabeth Fraser could have been Antony Hegarty’s shy aunt, sharing his diffident onstage manner.
In a white jacket and shimmering dress, she looked ready for a wedding party rather than her long-awaited return to live performance. This was the headline-grabbing coup of the current Meltdown director’s stint: persuading one of the UK’s most distinctive and beguiling voices to play her first full London show since the demise of indie giants Cocteau Twins in 1998.
Since then, this reclusive perfectionist who makes Scott Walker look like a party animal has toured only with Massive Attack in 2006. Preferring brief studio cameos, she has donated her wondrous soprano sparingly, as on the Bristol group’s ‘Teardrop’. A solo album has been mooted since 2006, but bar a couple of low-key singles, it took Hegarty’s invite to kick her into gear and set in motion one of the most eagerly awaited comebacks of the year.
Fraser has claimed one reason she turned down a Cocteau’s reunion was the struggle to be heard against their mesmeric wall of sound, though the tiny vocalist with close-cropped silver hair still struggled to impose herself at first, down to poor sound as much as lack of match fitness.
Fraser’s voice has lost the sumptuous quality of classic Cocteau recordings, lacking power especially when she reaches the more stratospheric notes - but this earthier quality has made her more human and vulnerable.
Known for nonsense lyrics, she still melts words together, focusing attention on her voice’s emotive strengths. Of her works in progress, it was shown best on ‘Blue Song’, a bewitching paean to love where she finally found her range. ‘Oomingmack’ was a softer daydream excursion, while later came moments of palpable threat and darkness. Such range was aided by a supple four-piece band dominated by former Spiritualized keyboardist Thighpaulsandra, channelling Ming The Merciless in glittery black.
Fraser only spoke to introduce Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, whose fluid acoustic playing provided a brilliant counterpoint to ‘Make Lovely’, where the singer gave full vent to her yearning keen.
Two backing singers added extra layers and elegance to a selection of Cocteau numbers, notably on an enveloping ‘Donimo’ when they batted around key phrases with Fraser. For a final encore, she returned without them for a genuinely breath-taking version of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song To The Siren’, proving her own bewitching qualities remained intact.