The Underbelly, a tiny pub venue cushioned by draping red velvet, makes a snug performance space. However, without a raised stage, and with constant bar chatter with which to contend, it is not the ideal spot for a solo acoustic performer.
But the engaging Basia Bulat more than rose to the challenge. The 25-year-old, blond-haired, elfin-like, folk-pop singer-songwriter from Canada boasts some full-hearted melodies that many could only wish to write. Her folky songs, often falling in the minor key, have a melancholy edge that Bulat chooses to lean on tonight, bar the lively more poppy "In the Night".
Opening with the entrancing "Heart Of My Own", from her new same-titled album, which features members of Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, her warm voice is strong from the start. The set misses accompaniment from a live band that would have recreated the richness of her recordings. "Snakes and Ladders", the most heart-swelling song of her 2007 Polaris Prize-nominated debut, Oh, My Darling, performed on acoustic guitar, misses its piano melody and plaintive violins, and the set would benefit from her glorious harmonies. Still, that her songs stand up to such minimal accompaniment shows the strength of her melodies, such as the wistful "The Pilgriming Vine" from her debut. It is testament to her song-writing talent that while recording her new album, Bulat met the folk-blues singer Odetta at a show, shortly before the star's death, whilst she's also currently amongst the best selling artists in the Canadian iTunes single charts.
At a time of pop stars performing behind the bleeps and beats of synthesisers, it is refreshing to see a young singer-songwriter playing a low-key set accompanied by antiquated instruments. "Gold Rush" features an auto harp, which she plucks delicately before fervently strumming at the strings with all her strength. For "The Shore" she introduces a beautifully intricate 100-year-old pianoette, which she plays tenderly on her lap. It is a highlight but for the rising chatter by the bar, so she picks up a mini ukulele for "Sparrow", singing unaided by amplification. The audience is instantly hushed. It bodes well for her brave choice of finale, a traditional gospel song "Hush". Sung a cappella, it both demonstrates her vocal control at its finest and an ability to win over a crowd.
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