Judith Owen, South Bank Purcell Room, London
Thursday 04 March 2010
Introduced by Ruby Wax, the singer-pianist and would-be comedienne was in exalted company, with Phil Jupitus and her husband Harry Shearer, of Spinal Tap, in attendance at a well-supported show.
Bounding into the sumptuous hall in boots, tails and with flowing blonde locks – “Mozart in bondage gear” - Owen’s pithy inter-song delivery was dryly endearing, if rather eccentric, as was the choice of her opening scat take on Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water, reinvented as Tori Amos meets Randy Newman at a metal gig.
That set out the stall for her two-hour, 16-song set, which revealed a hugely overlooked performer. For not only does the Welsh songstress have a captivating valleys voice and sunny persona, she’s got the songs in abundance, culled from her half a dozen albums penned since her Ronnie Scott’s residency days. Her own quirky stylings were backed from the second song on double-bass by Shearer (sans moustache, or dress, for that matter.
He looked too comfortable in it at Wembley, with The Folksmen, I pointed out: “I’ll take that as a compliment”). He plucked away deftly if rather quietly on the likes of the jaunty missing-home lament, Blighty, and the US consumerism gone mad critique, Train Out Of Hollywood, prefaced by Owen’s comment that she wrote the escapist tune thinking of her shoe bill in LA. “Me too,” Shearer quipped, sardonically. The rather melancholic I Promise You the lady put down to her Celtic heart, and the rain that Shearer endured during a North Walian sojourn, and her heartfelt delivery put one in mind of Vonda Shepard - on a window-ledge.
Dapper jazz singer Ian Shaw duetted superbly on the cynically catchy Cool Life, with its trilling piano lines, and Gabrielle Swallow played a lusty cello on Shearer’s banker-bewailing Bonus Baby – topical, but rather more Folksmen than Tap. Still, the idyllic setting of Conway Bay conjured up sun-kissed pictures of Cymru, and Sympathy was rendered in an uptempo fashion with a string-led crescendo finale. The fabulous Claire Martin loaned her dulcet tones to a sweet duet, Danny Thompson took on the bass duties on Water, and Owen’s piano swells and rich vocal tone were to the fore on a compelling tribute to Owen’s collaborator, Robert Kirby (of Nick Drake fame), on Purcell’s When I Am Laid (Dido’s Lament).
That mesmeric number was followed (along with an aside that by this stage in proceedings she’d usually de-kitted and shown “breastage”) a solo Nicholas Drake, and by Shearer returning to the upright. After a false start on the piano, My Father’s Voice saw Owen on fine form (despite a fumbled line and cue for more jocularity), while the closing Cry Me A River with a returning Shaw wrapped things up in splendid style, like a jazz Bond theme with Judith wearing the trousers. Bondage ones, of course.
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