Sea of Bees, Bush Hall, London
Friday 11 February 2011
Such is the interest in Sea of Bees that revered stars of the indie scene, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, are fans. The latter even listed California singer-songwriter Julie Ann Baenziger's debut album, Songs for the Ravens, as one of his top albums of last year.
It's no surprise. Baenziger boasts a voice that's mesmeric, vulnerable, sharing the childlike expression – if not the yelps – of Joanna Newsom, whose freak-folk scene the 26-year-old newcomer now inhabits, as well as reaching out to Americana. It's this startlingly emotive voice which led the producer of her album, John Baccigaluppi, who has worked with Devendra Banhart and Alela Diane, to take an interest after he spotted her playing alone in the studio.
Blending natural imagery and personal emotion, like Laura Veirs and Bon Iver before her, the album is much preoccupied by tales of love (unrequited), from the refreshing perspective of someone who's just discovering it. "The whole album was a whole year of my life plus an additional 15 years, caged," she tells the crowd, before performing "Gnomes", the album's opener, delicate and ethereal vocals joined by light strumming. The intriguing confession echoes earlier claims that the songs were written when she "was emerging from her chrysalis", imagery which refers both to her realising her teenage dream of becoming a musician (she is self-trained on the marimba, slide guitar, glockenspiel and in singing) but also discovering her sexuality. One of the album's songs, which she omits from tonight's short set, "Sidepain", is an ode to California's indie princess Jenny Lewis, with whom Baenziger was once a little bit in love.
She introduces "Strikefoot" as being about missing love's fleeting opportunity, and you feel the anguish of unrequited love in her performance. In the melodically rich single "Wizbot", she realises herself as a more delicate Cat Power.
Tonight the theme is romance. "You're romantic," she says, beaming innocently towards a couple near the front of the stage. Songs for the Ravens is a deeply personal album in the way that Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago was. Live, she is generous with her personal, if eccentric, stories, openly baring her soul and displaying the emotion that feeds through every carefully delivered vocal. She is a giving artist, and the rewards for the listener are great.
Tonight's pared-down performance has just Baenziger on guitar, and a backing vocalist/ guitarist. As such, it misses the textured instrumentation – the marimba, light percussion, and glockenspiel – of her finely crafted arrangements. It's in "Marmalade" where this is most felt. The song's haunting qualities dissipate without the texturing of her layered instrumentation.
But it's the song she performs entirely solo, with nothing but sparse finger-picked guitar, that shows her at her most mesmeric. On "The Woods", a track that does not feature on her album, her pure bird-like singing, meticulously controlled to the point that even the very highest notes are quiet and never strained, is deeply stirring. It's an unconventional emotive performance that cannot fail to reel in the audience, who are duly still and attentive.
She ends on a new, unreleased, song, "Tantrum". "No, I want more," wails its imploring chorus. Never has a tantrum sounded so sweet.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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