Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Live: Nell Bryden - The Borderline, Soho 5/1/11

A disclaimer - if you're here for sweaty, loud and fast punk rock carnage, then you've turned up at the wrong place.

It's probably ironic that my first show of 2011 is the first non-punk rock gig I've been to in actually a few years, and it shows - it takes a while for me to get the idea out of my head that, no, there probably won't be circle pits and flying pints kicking off when the music starts. Probably the weirdest thing of all, however, is whom I'm actually seeing tonight - namely, a female singer-songwriter with a big acoustic guitar.

No, I've not gone completely doolally. I know what kind of maudlin, MOR images are springing into your mind, but happily, tonight's main attraction is none of the above at all. I've made no secret of my admiration for Ms Bryden before on this blog - I may well have said that her album What Does It Take? was for a long time my favourite record of 2009, before being pipped at the post by a certain punk band from Deal. So I'm understandably excited to, after several missed opportunities, get to see in action one of my favourite artists from outside of the sphere of punk tonight in the relatively intimate surroundings of the Borderline.

First up though, is a bloke with an acoustic guitar singing earnest ballads - Roddy Hart (5.5/10).

Oh dear oh dear, corduroy tedium awaits.

However, another surprise - I find myself actually not hating it. Yes, the Springsteen-esque acoustic pop nuggets tick every single cliche box in the acoustic singer-songwriter book, from hackneyed titles to cloying, melancholic vocal lines, but they're charming and inoffensive enough most of the time for me to actually quite enjoy them. They're honed and polished, and delivered in a tidy, mildly soulful manner, and some guitar lines actually make it into the 'I might go and download that' category in my mental filing cabinet. However, this lack of originality means that the songs suffer from being easily forgettable, so much so that I'm struggling to remember any details of any of them - in fact, the only thing that springs to mind is that Hart's vocal delivery ends up coming off like Davey Havok from AFI trying to cover Springsteen, and if that's not one of the most bizarre comparisons I've ever made, I don't quite know what is. Impossible to dislike then, but also difficult to like with any degree of passion, if you wanted to sum up Roddy Hart in a pithy nutshell, although what I will say is that I can see people who are more into this stuff than I am absolutely lapping this up.

Frankly though, he's gone into battle tonight woefully under-equipped - he could've had a stage show featuring pyrotechnics, burlesque dancers and a chimpanzee playing bongos, and he still wouldn't have upstaged tonight's headliner. From the very moment Nell Bryden (10/10) hits the stage and kickstarts the action with her backing band of cohorts, she has the crowd in the palm of her 1947 Gibson guitar-toting hand, and boy, does she know it. The amount of energy, heart and soul she loads into her performance is quite astonishing - her vocal delivery is overflowing with sassy charisma from the get-go, and she dances, struts and jives around the stage with a confident swagger and a constant grin. Her stunning voice is given full reign here, and she takes advantage, damn near bringing the house down at times with her staggeringly powerful high end wails as the pace quickens. Conversely, she's equally at home when the tempo slows, adding delicate and gorgeous vocal lines to the mid-tempo numbers. Comparisons with Freddie Mercury sound completely ridiculous at first, but as the show goes on, they make perfect sense - just like that famous rock frontman, she's a born performer with charisma by the bucketload, and a wonderful spontaneity born out of a passion and unbridled love of music. When you couple this with guitarist Leon Rossiter's ice-cold, bluesy guitar lines, bassist Andy McConkey's bobbing grooves and drummer Leo Sutherland's fast 'n' loose skiffle beats, the result is an absolute joy to watch.

All of this means that the songs, highly polished and intricately woven on record, are stripped down and given a firm kick up the arse, with the more high-tempo songs benefiting the most from this. 'Late Night Call' and 'What Does It Take' become rousing stomp-a-longs, 'Where The Pavement Ends' just manages to retain it's sense of drama despite being beaten to within an inch of it's life, and star single 'Second Time Around' is even more outrageously catchy and danceable than normal. The slower tracks, such as 'Goodbye' and 'Only Life I Know' also benefit from a stripped-down approach, mainly serving to emphasise the gorgeous emotion at their core, particularly so on the former, a personal favourite of mine. She takes the brave decision to load the middle of the set largely with new tracks, but to be honest, if you've got a tonne of new material to preview, then the middle of the set is the best place to do it, leaving the familiar anthems to the sharp end of the show. The newies display promise and a good progression, with the two highlights being the beautiful 'Sirens', a plea for hope in post 9/11 America, and 'Soundtrack', an old-fashioned, energetic and hooky roots-rocker.

In between songs she is a warm and incredibly friendly presence, and it's sometimes hard to believe that someone with such a confident, gunslinger stage persona can be so humble and down-to-earth when the music stops. She displays a ready sense of humour, poking fun at both dissident crowd members and her own band, and is completely free of any ego at all, which means that the barrier between performer and audience is casually tossed aside. It even continues after the show is over; she is quick to come out front and make time to talk to fans, and has a great, Joe Strummer-esque gift of zoning in on one person or group and making them feel truly appreciated and at ease in conversation. I wound up having a great conversation with her about punk music (and also discovering that she's a closet Ramones and Green Day fan in the bargain), and I kid you not, I could easily have been talking to a mate. I know this sort of thing is largely a given at the underground punk gigs I'm used to, but to meet an internationally well-known artist with such talent and popularity, yet so free of pretension or ego, is truly refreshing.

I was beginning to wonder whether I was going soft, with all these awardings of 10s all over the place in recent reviews. However, I've thought long and hard, and there's no reason why I can't give top marks for this performance - it was awesome from start to finish, and when it's all being delivered with such charisma, warmth and soul from an artist who is just as much a great person as she is a confident, assured performer, you've got the makings of a truly brilliant show which will live in the memory long after the evening is over and the dust has settled. This may not have been a punk rock show, but I absolutely bloody loved it all the same.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Headliner's Setlist:
  1. Late Night Call
  2. Tonight
  3. Where The Pavement Ends
  4. Glory To The Day (Helen's Requiem)
  5. What Does It Take
  6. Lost In His Eyes
  7. Mercy On Me
  8. Soundtrack
  9. Fingerprints
  10. Goodbye
  11. Only Life I Know
  12. Second Time Around
  13. Sirens
  14. (Encore) Not Like Loving You

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