Sea of Bees, XOYO, London
Friday 29 July 2011
If you are going to disown your overbearing, religious family, then head first to Sacramento, California. That is how Julie Ann Bee escaped, first by falling in with some "witchy, objectionable" types, she says, before reinventing herself as Sea of Bees, a studio project now bearing fruit as a live proposition.
We know all about Sacramento's magical demi-monde since Bee talks 10 to the dozen between songs. Kept away from pop and rock as a child, the 26-year-old is both late developer and ingénue, though one who is learning fast. She describes her music, not unfairly, as freak-folk, aligning herself with West Coast luminaries Joanna Newsom and Devendra Barnhart. Like Newsom, she comes with a high-pitched, childlike vocal, though looks rather tomboyish with her work shirt and messy hair.
Wide-eyed and playful with fans, Bee exudes utter excitement at being allowed on stage, something she fails to hide despite hints at Dolly Parton-style stagecraft. "We're so pleased to have finished the tour here," she intimates. "I love being in Shoreditch." A school's-out atmosphere is amplified by the jam feel to tonight's set as the artist is joined by members of fellow travellers Smoke Fairies' backing band on guitar and backing vocals.
This line-up highlights Bee's classic, deeply personal songwriting, hidden on debut album, Songs for the Ravens through the exotic sounds of glockenspiel and marimba. "Gnomes" shimmers with Tex-Mex desert heat while "Marmalade" rolls along like a vulnerable take on Stevie Nicks's drivetime anthems, the group always leaning towards the more robust indie-rock end of Americana.
All the while, Bee sings in a unique fashion that brings to mind Throwing Muses' Kristen Hersh with choral training or an earthier Björk. Such an extraordinary instrument overshadows her oft-aired unrequited yearnings for girls in cafés, feelings she makes clear elsewhere. "Fyre" is dedicated to her parents: "They didn't notice there was a flame in me, and it burned deep inside," the artist complains, though insists she is no rebel, encouraging the toast "Nice is cool."
Bee ends the gig on her own and without the anchor of her band, loses herself further in her music, eyes closed, moving all round her mike stand as if she longs to whirl around the room. She closes with new number, "Tantrum", which shows her at a most soul-baringly intense yet. This singular artist may have let out much of her frustration, but that fire still burns.
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