Lisa Hannigan, Shepherds Bush Empire, London (4/5)

 

There may be more than a touch of end-of-tour high spirits, but Ireland’s current female star of gentle balladry is a revelation tonight, even to herself. “I don’t usually rock out with such force,” Lisa Hannigan explains as she ties back her unruly auburn locks once more.

Hannigan and her six-piece band may hardly be rocking out, but compared to the delicate strains of the performer’s recorded material, you can understand her point. We first heard the County Meath artist’s voice as a regular, dulcet counterpoint to Damian Rice’s pained introspection, until they broke up creatively and romantically. Then her 2008 debut solo album, See Sew, became a Mercury shortlist also-ran, leaning too much towards the saccharine to be a real contender.

More bite and bristle was evident on second offering Passenger, released in October, still with plenty of whimsy and advice not to walk on ice “no matter how nice”. Live, though, Hannigan has sufficient authority to give even the most simpering lines force. There is a hushed immediacy from the off that she uses to her advantage, playing quiet numbers as lightly as possible, with the help of backing players that provide the necessary space to give these tunes an airy grace.

There are also plenty of mesmerising moments when Hannigan stomps her boots and bangs a tambourine-style instrument against her thigh, leading the band into more driving, jiving accompaniments that brings a ceilidh spirit to proceedings. Even better is ‘Flowers’, a simmering blues where she sounds like PJ Harvey accompanied by a more affable Tindersticks. Her voice easily carries off both extremes, rising from a husky tone to purer, higher-soaring notes. In this setting, a darker quality to Hannigan’s lyrics becomes more obvious. ‘Lille’ would be chillingly mournful even if its writer had not dedicated it to a friend that had died 10 years ago the previous night, while the “I buried you in a day of snowing” line on the new album’s title track takes on a more sinister mien.

Her producer on Passenger, the American John Henry, joins Hannigan for the encore, including a spin round one of his exuberant folkish numbers, when she retires to quiet backing vocals before taking charge once more. Earnest on record, the artist delivers ‘(Safe Travels) Don’t Die’ as an exercise in deadpan humour before a rollicking ‘Knot’, when the singer finally lets her hair down. Something she could do more often.

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