The Empire has a faded elegance and a generally unwelcoming feel that suggests it's a place of memories rather than the launch-pad for performers' tomorrows, but Gwyneth Herbert, something of a veteran on the British music scene at the age of just 26, chose the old place as the London leg of her country-wide tour to launch her new musical self.
Coinciding with the release of Between Me & The Wardrobe, her Blue Note debut that ironically contains precious little jazz-oriented music, the tour uses a line-up not dissimilar to her usual that appears on the album – bassist Sam Burgess, pianist Steve Holness and guitarist Al Cherry being central to the arrangements and character of the new tunes she is performing this time round.
Those tunes are self-penned, highly personal, and they wear their influences on their sleeves. Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Kurt Weill, Ani diFranco, and even Melanie, make their presences felt among traditional music and children's songs, carrying Herbert a long long way away from the Great American Songbook that had been her staple up until recently.
This change was welcomed by a crowd that filled up about three-quarters of the old theatre's seats, and Herbert showed natural ease in front of an audience, her warmth coming across between songs.
The tunes themselves were a little more hit and miss, Herbert's concern with words (there's an awful lot of them in her songs) often demanding a melody line that is more functional than pretty or memorable, and even occasionally necessitating lines that simply don't scan with the music, causing her to skitter hurriedly through the congested syllables to reach their end before the bar line passes by.
This had the effect of forcing her into using a rather theatrical vocal presentation that detracted from its normal impact. Herbert is one of the biggest vocal talents on the international scene and when she sings unforcedly she can hold her own with pretty much anyone, but picking up the verbal niceties of these pieces didn't play to her strengths.
Only on more legato numbers with strong melodies, such as "Slow Down Brother" and the exquisite encore "Midnight Oil" (the latter finishing the evening appropriately with the words "this is my farewell lullaby") did her full vocal and emotional power come across.
Still, it's a start. I guess The Empire has seen many such in its century of existence, and Herbert has time to develop this into an evening of music as consistently communicative as its best parts currently are.
Touring to 30 November (www.gwynethherbert.com)Reuse content