Shocking behaviour

Michelle Shocked | Camden Jazz Cafe, London
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The Independent Culture

AT 38, she's hardly old enough to warrant inclusion in the "I thought they were dead" file, but until tonight, Michelle Shocked had slipped off the radar. It transpires that the Texas-born folkster's five-year absence was largely down to a protracted legal battle with Mercury Records. The latter had refused to release Shocked's stark, 1996 album Kind-Hearted Woman, citing "stylistic inconsistency". Fortunately for us, she put it out on her own label and vowed to continue "underground".

AT 38, she's hardly old enough to warrant inclusion in the "I thought they were dead" file, but until tonight, Michelle Shocked had slipped off the radar. It transpires that the Texas-born folkster's five-year absence was largely down to a protracted legal battle with Mercury Records. The latter had refused to release Shocked's stark, 1996 album Kind-Hearted Woman, citing "stylistic inconsistency". Fortunately for us, she put it out on her own label and vowed to continue "underground".

Even without record-company backing, tonight's show had sold-out. Lanky, still girlish, her famous crew-cut now grown-out, Shocked took the stage looking relaxed and happy. Her four-piece band included Hothouse Flowers guitarist Fiachna O'Braonain, a fiddle player, and a bassist who also supplied Latin-sounding trumpet flourishes. Together, they quickly established a mood that could only be described as joyous, their "music for music's sake" credo irresistible.

It was during the intro of the much-loved oldie "Anchorage" that Shocked and O'Braonain explained how this particular venture had come about. Shocked had been invited to play a New Year's Eve gig at New York's prestigious Bottom Line club, but as she didn't have a band at the time, she'd phoned O'Braonain to see what could be done. O'Braonain committed to the performance, and Shocked flew to Dublin to join him. While there, the pair wrote 30 songs in 30 days.

Many of these compositions featured in tonight's set, their suss and poetic beauty a reminder that, when quality artists slip the corporate leash, the muse seems to approve. Though "If Not Here" and "That's So Amazing" were poignant and powerful, "Jump Little Rabbit" was a light-hearted conceit in which Shocked cast herself as one of Bugs Bunny's cousins. All wide-eyed animation, she played the rabbit, then a fang-bearing snake, O'Braonain's taut, acoustic guitar groove supplying the momentum. From my vantage point side of stage, I could see a sea of smiling faces. The audience was completely enthralled.

Later, Shocked seemed genuinely touched when the crowd sang large chunks of "Memories Of East Texas" for her, and the way she dealt with the stage invader who insisted on giving her a lengthy hug was refreshing. In truth, it's difficult to communicate the extent of tonight's band/audience communion without sounding corny, but the fact that Shocked eventually managed to convince the whole of the Jazz Café to perform a slow-motion "butt-dance" might give you some indication of our trust in her.

I've placed undue emphasis on humour here, but over its two and a quarter hours, this life-affirming performance ran the full gamut of human emotion. I got the call and I went down to the venue not expecting much. What transpired was my favourite gig of the year so far.

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