Review and photos by Stefania Ianne
The Roundhouse in London is a remarkable building made entirely of bricks and steel. Its architects in Victorian London were Robert Stephenson and Rober Dockray. They need to be credited because thinking that it was a good idea to create a round building to store trains was genius! It is amazing how, in the past, they would casually create landmark buildings for extremely mundane tasks. With the Roundhouse, we are talking of a glorified shed to shelter steam train engines in need of repairs. I can’t get over the thought.
Ed Harcourt went straight to a Mercury Prize nomination all those years ago when he burst onto the music scene, then he disappeared from my radar until I became aware of this date at the Roundhouse in support of Martha Wainwright. Harcourt and Wainwright in one of the most atmospheric venues in London is simply unmissable. Amazingly, we get last minute premium seats at the bargain price of £25 each. I do not recognise the world-weary, sarcastic, politicised Harcourt when he gets on stage: 15 years can change a person deeply. He is wearing a beard and a white jacket, and he immediately hits the keyboard on his own, voicing a moody song titled ‘Antarctica‘, from his latest creation Furnaces (2016). I can’t shake off the feeling of surprise, as if I was witnessing an awkward, puzzling piano bar session. At the beginning, Harcourt seems to be struggling with his wealth of instrumentation that creates an impractical maze on stage and halters the fluidity of the performance. I can’t figure out how he manages to constantly adjust his distance from the keyboard while playing and singing. His jumping from keyboard to piano, to guitar, to minimalist drum kit while looping the first few notes of each is distracting and definitely detracts from the performance. He seems uncomfortable, almost under pressure, and he tries to release some while tuning his guitar by retelling a joke cracked by his daughter: ‘the banana went to the doctor because she was not peeling very well…’.
Amazingly, that innocent joke does release some of the tension and the concert becomes more interesting and relaxed, with Harcourt mainly on piano accompanied by trusted trumpeter Nick Etwell of British jazz band The Filthy Six. Through this addition, the whole performance becomes so much more rounded and enjoyable. There is also the odd cabaret moment, when Etwell, while walking from the piano towards his mike at the opposite end of the stage, cheekily slaps Harcourt’s bum while he is bent over working on his pedals. More laughter, less pressure. During the performance, I start to see a theme building up: frustration for not being famous enough nor free from money worries. This seems to unite Ed and Martha. I feel that their frustrated egos make for much darker, soulful and powerful music. ‘Murmur in My Heart‘ proves it unequivocally. Harcourt ends the concert with the song that made him, ‘Apple of My Eye’. The performance sounds rushed though, it just feels as if Harcourt thinks he is sort of constrained to play it, and he leaves the stage well before the end of the song, while the audience keep singing their approval.
A long interval is needed to free the stage from all paraphernalia, but at last Martha Wainwright is on stage with her show, interspersing songs from her latest Goodnight City (2016) and from her beginnings, with a few intense and very personal covers. Martha is perhaps the least known of the legendary Wainwright – McGarrigle musical dynasty and somehow the shiest, most unlikely star and the most interesting, from my point of view. On stage, she is mesmerising, moving, funny, she is an exceptional singer and she carries the audience away with her, in her rollercoaster of emotions all lived very publicly on stage. I had forgotten about her energy, I had forgotten about the high kicks, I had forgotten how she not only performs music but is music. Everything is, in fact, very memorable: her facility for singing, the boisterousness of her laughter, the emotional hysteria of her life, her bitching about her lack of success as opposed to her louder-than-life brother Rufus and – most importantly – her music and her mother’s, still so present 7 years after her death. Also, her looks, so much more like Kate McGarrigle than Loudon Wainwright III. The rendition of her mother’s ‘I’m a Diamond‘ on her guitar is proof.
During the concert, I am laughing with her, I am crying with her, I am dreaming with her. She is self-deprecating and wonderfully musical. Ed Harcourt joins her on stage for a little ditty they wrote together. Well, sort of ‘together’, since she sent him out of his own house for her to concentrate on her work. Harcourt underlines how natural writing songs appears to be for her, while his contribution to ‘Song for You‘ took him weeks. I am so enraptured by it all that I forget to take pictures. The evening ends with another moving Kate McGarrigle song, ‘Proserpina‘. Martha is on guitar and voice, with her supporting band huddled around one microphone on the side as her chorus. Martha and her young Canadian band Bernice in their workers’ overalls have achieved their goal: ‘we are here to mend your hearts’, she had promised. And she did.
An excerpt from this review has been previously published by the author on Stillarte.com.