Tuesday, 7 August 2012

ELIZABETH FRASER (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES HIT MELTDOWN)

Royal Festival Hall, 6th August 2012


Between availing myself of my ticket and placing myself in my seat, I realised I didn't have very many expectations for this gig.

Needless to say, I've always adored Fraser's mellifluous voice and loved her original band the Cocteau Twins. To this day, 'Treasure' is one of my most cherished albums. But as time went on they seemingly turned more and more into the outfit their detractors had always claimed they were, something shiny and ornate but substanceless, musical bling. A later album was called 'Heaven or Las Vegas', as if they'd started out pretty close to heaven but had inclined further and further towards Las Vegas.

Moreover, not only do we have this long performing gap but there's also the absence of Fraser's long-term musical partner Robin Guthrie. Besides, there was always something mediumistic about their music, as if they were channelling something they weren't really in charge of. Was there any actual basis for expectation? I even started to wonder that, if I'd seen the actual Cocteau Twins back in the day, I might not have bothered with this latter-day reappearance at all.

And at first, I managed to keep true to my inner curmudgeon. There were new tracks apleantly but they seemed too much like photocopies of the old, similar in form but more pallid.

But as things went on it all started to mesmerise me. The audience adoration she received may have been a little overstated, perhaps more down to their being glad to see her back than what she was actually doing. (She was presented with numerous bouquets of flowers like she's our generation's diva. Which I suppose she is.) Not everything worked. There were moments of AOR-style trebly guitar. A duo performance with Steve Hackett on acoustic, clearly signposted as a showstopper, didn't really convince.

But ultimately things turned about, and the old tracks started to reshap themselves in the shadow of the new. This was most definitely the case by the two encores, first a jawdropping version of 'Pearly Dew Drops Drops.' And then...

Though people were shouting for it I hadn't really considered that she'd even play 'Song to the Siren', much less close on it. (It not being an actual Cocteau Twins song, it being a cover and so on.) As it was, she reworked it to such a degree that we didn't know to start clapping until the opening lines.

In the original, and unlike Tim Buckley's own version, the song to the Siren is sung in a Siren-like voice. I've never been sure why that works so well but it does. The original is sung resplendently yet strangely, as if really the voice of some actual otherworldly creature. I'm not sure if it's sung in an actual open tuning but with the held notes it resounds, like those Bulgarian folk choirs we were only just talking about.

The new version is in the best sense of the word solo, like those missing Cocteau Twins aren't really missing after all. The backing music is stripped back, throwing the emphasis on her voice just as it becomes less flamboyant, less dramatic. You no longer feel like you're being called to, more like your ears are eavesdropping. Yet there's something murky going on under the surface of the music, like submerged rocks.

It's perhaps an odd thing to say about such a delicate performance but it's more mature, more assured. It's not someone looking back, hoping they can still do what they did. Liz Fraser is looking forward.

But, with the magic of the interweb, you don't need to take my word for it. Here's the original version...


...and the new...


Coming soon! Some much-promised out-of-date exhibition reviews...

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