Mark Savage 27/01/2008
Oh, here be riddles. How does a self-created enigma stay so when wider fame beckons? And how does one counter the ill feeling caused by your songs being used on cosmetics adverts? Trading cult points for gold is fraught with danger, even today when everyone does it.
The band, almost youthful, rough around the edges and defying the smoking ban, drift on, and begin with their collars open, like a Bad Seeds-lite: Drums saunter but crack when they need to, the guitar is satisfyingly spare, trebly and reverbed. Thus they avoid, mostly, becoming a Commitments-style rolling soul revue.
And then the subject: Chan Marshall, smoky chanteuse of ill repute, skips on, ponytail and pumps, bouncing like Bonnie Langford on Blue Peter juices, fidgeting with props, the mic, the mood. At times it is sweet, this kooky display, sweet that as the band smokily slugs through the music (mostly selections from the new covers record, Jukebox, and her previous coulda-been-a-contender platter, The Greatest), she happily dances away from worthy clichés of doomed troubadours sitting on stools, sighing. But at others, its incongruousness grates, and you long for her to stand still, for a moment.
Her banter frequently annoys, drifting as it does through a repertoire of cockney accents, to schoolgirl-on-shandy wackiness ('I like these lights. I like, I like, psycho-psycho- Japanese! Japanese!'), to minor rebellion (smoking indoors), until she makes the grand gesture of screwing up the setlist of each and every member of the band, and pitching them to the crowd baseball style. The gathered, naturally, take this as a cue for a deviation from the plan, and shout out a series of frantic requests from Marshall's lengthy back catalogue. One fan almost severs his larynx bellowing the three syllables You! Are! Free! But slightly embarrassingly, fresh copies of the set list are roadied onto the stage and the band continue with more cuts from The Greatest.
Which in itself is fine: For at her best (and this is evident in some sections here, particularly a dazzling run that includes the Patsy Cline number She's Got You, and a muddy, echoing, wonderfully confused and cracked Where Is My Love), she is a scruffy Sade (a compliment), displaying a voice of natural beauty and grace. Her willingness to meddle with her songs can frustrate when it doesn't come off, denying the crowd their release, but it does display her keen interest in personalizing those records over and over, taking them back, reworking them, even when they are held tightly in the hearts of others. Only Dylan still does something comparable, with similarly mixed results.
By the encore of Lived In Bars, which rings golden, and sounds as lived-in and sadly beautiful as Susan Sarandon in White Palace (which, take it from a student of such things, is about as lived-in and sadly beautiful as you can get), claims of greatness seem sporadically plausible once more, despite her tiresome attempts to seemingly booby-trap herself.
Photo by Carsten Windhorst