Nina Nastasia, London

England versus The Rest of the World: it's a tough one to call
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The Independent Culture

"I really appreciate the fact that you chose music over football," says Nina Nastasia, about five songs in to her London concert on Monday night. "I'll tell you the score after the interval, though I personally have no interest," she adds sweetly before returning to what this LA-born, New York-based singer-songwriter does best: strumming her guitar and bringing her unassuming and sad song-poems to life.

On record, it's a magical mix that can only (inadequately) be described as what might happen if Suzanne Vega, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits and Edward Hopper became one. The producer Steve Albini, who is no slouch when it comes to recognising heaven-sent talent, says this of Nastasia's just re-released debut album, Dogs: "Of the couple of thousand records I've worked on, this is one of my favourites."

John Peel, Nastasia's other high-profile champion, however, is nowhere to be seen and the rows of empty seats towards the back of the hall are a sure sign that he is not the only person to have put the quest for European glory ahead of Americana royalty.

Live, with only an accordion, violin and drums for backing, the magic takes a while to take hold. When it does - gorgeously on "Jimmy's Rose Tattoo" and "Stormy Weather", from Dogs - every sound makes sense and Nastasia's voice is spooky, sugary, sweeping and spine-tingling. But the spell is intermittent and the first set ends just as the pieces of Nastasia's Vaudevillean backing band finally fall into place.

When she returns ("England 2, Croatia 1," she says as flatly as if she were telling the time), she is joined by tonight's "rare guests": Kaigal Ool-Khovalyg and Sayan Bapa, from the Tuvan group Huun-Huur-Tu (Tuva is near Mongolia - but you knew that).

The addition of traditional instruments - one, a horse-hair cello, the other a kind of lute that looks alarmingly and, when lying flat on the ground, tragically, like SpongeBob SquarePants - adds texture and atmosphere. But there is always that whiff of suspicion about such "world music" gestures. And when Nastasia leaves us alone with the pair for a little traditional Tuvan throat-singing, only the most football-phobic among us can be thinking they have come to the right place tonight.

While Nastasia's albums (and Dogs, in particular) are for life, tonight is only an occasionally mesmerising spectacle. In spite of a strong performance in the first half, and the arrival of the two lads from Tuva in the second, Nastasia has to settle for a creditable draw. (Although it must be pointed out that she would still qualify for the knockout stage if you were picking the best albums of the past 10 years.) At the end of the day, Brian, music is a funny old game and there's nothing that Nastasia's subtle, hypnotic tales of urban details and lives half-lived can do to disguise the fact that the night belongs to Wayne Rooney. At the risk of sounding like the saddest man this side of Portugal, when you have to make the choice between football and music, no one can really be called a winner.

s.richman@independent.co.uk

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