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Mara Carlyle, Jesca Hoop, Albert Niland at Blackstairs Lounge Review

MARA CARLYLE @ BLACK'S, LONDON

Held in a tiny room at Black’s private members club, the monthly Society of the Golden Slippers is fast garnering a reputation for punching above its weight -  to paraphrase compere, Leisa Rea, it’s the biggest and smallest night happening in London. Tonight doesn’t disappoint, and first act is native Californian and former nanny to Tom Waits’ kids, Jesca Hoop, who brings some alt-folk quirkiness to the proceedings. Simple finger-picking accompaniments disguise some unpredictable and unusual song structures, and Hoop’s voice wheels between a low breathiness, fragile bird squawk and almost operatic soprano. If you like your folk on the freaky side in the vein of Tasseomancy and Timbre Timbre, you’ll love Jesca Hoop.

Continuing the theme of musical experimentation is Albert Niland, who combines classical, Spanish and flamenco guitar with Irish-inspired folk. His pleasant, mature voice soars above some seriously good playing and leaves you wondering why he’s not better known.  He sets the scene for Mara Carlyle, another artist not afraid to throw out the musical-genre rule book or, as she puts it “steal songs from people who are long dead and can’t sue me.”  Like her music, her voice is a mixture of 1940’s jazz and classical, an unlikely marriage that comes together beautifully on ‘Bowlface en Provence’ from long awaited album, Floreat. Elsewhere we have Schumann set to musical saw and “something I nicked from a geezer called Vaughan-Williams.”

Carlyle is a musical magpie and, along with the classical pillaging, includes a cover of the Robert Palmer track ‘She Makes My Day’. In her capable hands it becomes  a quieter arrangement for jazz voice and folk-style guitar. There’s a beautiful duet with supporting musician, Oli Bayston (originally written for Willy Mason), based on a 17th century poem about being terrified on your death bed, and some shy but willing audience participation on the theatrical  ‘King’. The highlight of the set, however, is surely her take on Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament’. Live, she plays it far more straight than the electronic EP version, proving that her voice is more than up to the challenge of delivering the heart wrenching agony of a much performed classic.

It’s difficult to categorise Carlyle, unafraid as she is of walking the tightrope between jazz, folk, classical and musical theatre. In doing so she, like Antony and the Jonsons, demonstrate that the lines between genres are only as substantial as we make them.  Let’s make 2012 the year of the magpie. 

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Words - Theresa Heath

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