Joan Wasser, the New York singer-songwriter who goes by the fabulously barmy moniker Joan As Police Woman, may not yet be loved by the masses but she is a woman with an impeccable pedigree. A classically trained violinist, Wasser has played violin with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra, recorded with Antony Hegarty, performed with Rufus Wainwright and played sessions with Elton John. With her just-released LP, The Deep Field, she now has three beautifully-crafted, critically adored albums under her belt and a voice that can make even the most wooden-hearted listener weep. In short, she has paid her dues and done her time. So you have to wonder why Wasser now finds herself playing the second date of her tour in a cramped subterranean venue that conspires to suck the life and spontaneity out of any performance.
Still, with her ample experience, Wasser is nothing if not a trouper, and refuses to let the evening's manifold problems – the poor sound system that frequently swallows her voice though somehow amplifies those of the audience, the microphone that delivers electric shocks to her hands, the lack of a proper stage, which means we can't see her, and she can't see us – puncture her built-in joie de vivre.
"I guess people pay to get shocked but I'm not quite there yet," she giggles, as the microphone gives her another jolt. Finding herself nose to nose with the front row, she attempts to make light of the non-existent boundary between band and audience, though it's clearly unsettling for all concerned.
Standing in stack heels and zip-up cat suit, her eyes glittering under her fringe, Wasser slips easily into hostess mode, with a stream of non sequiturs that touch upon everything from the Year of the Rabbit to the affliction that is being gap-toothed ("Everyone thinks you're dumb!"). Despite being visible only by the top of her head and doing battle with her equipment, she is a commanding presence: warm and witty, dry yet joyful.
Where Wasser's last album To Survive, dealt with the death of loved ones (her boyfriend, Jeff Buckley, her friend Elliott Smith and, later, her mother), The Deep Field, which takes its name from a distant pocket of space, deals with the age-old theme of love. Wasser has described it as her "most open, joyous record", and this certainly shows through the syncopated grooves of "The Magic" in which Wasser aptly proclaims, "I am fine, I am divine, but there's a wild ride going on behind the sign", to the propulsive "Kiss the Specifics". If her look is early-Eighties Joan Jett, her sound is more Seventies-era Al Green or Curtis Mayfield, her voice a soulful croon that slips in and out of falsetto, and is bolstered by flourishes of psychedelic rock. Indeed, much of her charm lies in the oddness of this contrast. Wasser has been called "Dusty Springfield for the indie generation" and, irritating as such epithets are, it pretty much nails what she is doing.
Performing as part of a trio, this is a pared-down performance from Wasser who has been known to tour with string and brass sections. It's a shame to see her restricted here both musically and physically, though if nothing else, it gives you a tantalising glimpse of her true capabilities.