Her chosen entrance is presumably rare at a basement dive whose claim to fame is Bob Dylan once played here. Once a mainstay of the sixties folk boom, The Troubadour is nowadays off the beaten track, but as the Hotheads ease into their opening number, their singer Elizabeth McGovern sashays on stage, all guillotine cheekbones and starry glow.
Hardly the most salubrious surroundings for an actor dabbling in music, though McGovern is not exactly taking the Tim Robbins or Hugh Laurie route. Having sparred with De Niro in Once Upon A Time In America, she spent time as a Chiswick housewife before regaining fame as Lady Cora in Downton Abbey. Likewise, she plugged away on west London’s open mike circuit before forming a band with her former guitar teacher that has just released its second album, How Not To Lose Things.
With a life story that encompasses Los Angeles excess and suburban domesticity, it is little wonder McGovern struggles to settle on a suitable idiom. Luckily, her backing musicians are supple enough to encompass anything from down-home folk through sophisticated lounge jazz to a giddy gypsy-dance fling.
Her own tentative guitar plucking is inaudible, out-muscled by electric strumming and a bouzouki. Yet when the band settle on a country twang, despite McGovern’s American roots it sounds as ersatz as seventies Dutch sensations Pussycats’ ‘Mississippi’. The vocalist, meanwhile, rarely sounds other than measured and polite, whether reminiscing about LA’s Viper Room or taking the kids to swimming galas.
McGovern’s delivery is at odds with her undoubted charisma. She commands the stage, giving her glib lyrics weight with an artfully raised eyebrow and steely gaze. There is just one schmaltzy moment, the playful supper club jazz of ‘Mr Debt Collector’ – a kind of ‘Big Spender’ for accountants - when you expect McGovern to stalk her way around the venue, sitting on the laps of unfortunate punters.
After the chintzy feel of the opening 40 minutes, the Hotheads suddenly ratchet up the tension on their two closing numbers. A driving bar room rumble carries the cod-philosophy of ‘Nothing New’ before ‘Use It Up’, a tune McGovern alarmingly introduces as “my prayer for you”.
Really it is an intriguing journey from spacious opening to rousing Celtic-rock finale, when her backing singer takes command. While she may want to convince as a deep-thinking singer/songwriter, McGovern is far more comfortable as an entertainer. For now she is stuck between soft rock and a hard place.