There's so much to admire about Joan Wasser's revival of the torch-singer's art that it seems slightly churlish to cavil at aspects of her show at Antony Hegarty's Meltdown season, but I have to admit I found it a largely frustrating affair.
Svelte and glamorous in a sparkly grey dress against the blue and indigo lighting, she certainly looks the part, and the soulful voice that sometimes brings to mind her New York forerunner Laura Nyro is capable of the most delicate emotional surgery. But there were too many missteps making for an unsatisfying evening.
In the first place, the mostly solo performances render large parts of last year's wonderful album The Deep Field out of bounds, due to her inability to replicate the arrangements adequately. She admits as much when someone calls for an encore of "The Magic", but offers us a single chorus by way of compensation: the response is delirious, but it's all we get. Instead, she commits the cardinal sin of playing as encores not old favourites but two new compositions, the piano ballad "The Hijack of My Life" followed by "What a World", a perfectly decent song bookended by unnecessary guitar-noise ugliness from herself and Rob Moose.
Moose is the guitarist who replaced her in Antony and the Johnsons, she explained when he joined her earlier in the set, adding looped bricolages of tiny notes and drone/whine textures to a few songs including "Flash". He brings a hint of what might have been achieved with greater resources, allowing Wasser to begin the vocal distantly, as if emerging from a fog of uncertainty, the flash of recognition sparking a confidence that builds to a keening climax, before ebbing away in little breaths.
It's a demonstration of the remarkable capabilities of Wasser's voice, which at times can be a tongue tickling the erogenous zones, at others a scalpel to the heart. Such an instrument requires precise application, but sadly, too often tonight its subtleties are swamped by overloud guitar strumming or florid piano, as if compensating for the lack of more textured arrangements.
Overall, the set is too one-paced, slow and glum, with little light to offset the darker corners of songs like "Forever and a Year" and "To Be Lonely", for which Wasser is joined by The Johnsons' string section. The lachrymose strings merely exacerbate the mood of morbid self-pity that shrouds the performance. As, indeed, does the solo piano rendition of Sandy Denny's "No More Sad Refrains", an admonition that might have been profitably applied to tonight's show.
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