Gig review: Martha Wainwright + Bernice at Revelation Ashford (5 stars) by Anna Morell

Martha Wainwright by Carl Lessard

“Hello,” she says simply, hand placed as if for reassurance across her heart, before piercing a pick-a-note electro-lounge soundscape with a clear, bright vocal somewhere between Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, Judy Tzuke and Scout Niblett on a more tuneful day.

Robin Dann, here playing under the moniker Bernice, is a cerebral support act, imagining living inside the moon, and Canadian bears’ thought processes on ‘being European’ before being killed for being in the wrong environment (European bears being mainly dead). Rose gardens and kelp forests carry equal lyrical weight over feathered drum loops and ragga-deep basslines. It’s an unsettling and not unpretty sonic combination. Direct, if unexpected. Good prep for the prick-up-your-ears leftfield honesty of Martha’s unflinchingly candid, confessional songwriting style.

It’s great to see Revelation packed out tonight, even the balconies full. Martha Wainwright’s entrance is quiet – she comes on with her band, all of them kitted out in grey jumpsuits. It’s the first thing I notice (and I do an inner feminist air punch): that she has chosen clothes that refuse to speak. She straps on her guitar, and there she is: a face, a guitar, her body as grey and anonymous as the stone pillars surrounding her. All she needs – all we need – is her voice, her soul and her six-string.

She kicks off with the lead single ‘Around The Bend’ from her wonderful new album ‘Goodnight City’ – a flutter of sharp descending scales, a defiant chorus and those sit-up-in-surprise gutteral interval drops.

‘Traveller’ is typical Martha – a gentle tune underlying a mix of insightful, stark, lyrics about her family. There’s lots in here about her mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010.

‘Franci’ is a song to her son – a tumble of observations delivered in a loving monologue – ‘Franci, Franci, Franci… everything about you is magical… everything you do is true… everything you do is glorious’. It’s Patti Smith’s ‘Gloria’ slowed down and reframed through the vulnerability of motherhood. It’s real, with no added sugar. It’s knee grazes and wide eyes. Who with children hasn’t felt like this? Album closer ‘Francis’ is another song dedicated to the boy, this time written by her brother. It’s unmistakably Rufus Wainwright: poetical, pure chanson, reminiscent of ‘Oh What A World’, written with all the love of a lullaby. Recorded, it’s lovely. Live, it’s breath-catching.

‘Window’ is a much darker song, written for her other son, Arcangelo. A hurtle through the insecurity of watching a child grow up. A plea to remain open. ‘Don’t close your eyes to the world outside. Look out the window. I only have eyes for you,’ she declares with ferocity without melodrama.

The new songs are delivered as true to the album – her voice as raw, head thrown back, throat open on stage as on track. Old favourites ‘Bleeding All Over You’, ‘Jimi’, ‘When The Day Is Short’, ‘This Life’ and ‘Factory’ are as fresh and serious as they were a decade ago. On ‘Year Of The Dragon’, her first song committed to record, she sings: “Some people hate me, they say that I’m too free, But one day soon I’ll be just like them and hate people just like me.” It doesn’t appear to have happened.

An encore rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel’ is utterly, beautifully believable. Everything she sings has the hallmark of the confessional. Everything nods to family. Everything becomes her own. The line: “You told me again you preferred handsome men, But for me you would make an exception,” could so easily be a precursor to a later, shared, unapologetic ‘Old Whore’s Diet’ with Rufus.

She ends with ‘Proserpina’, the last song her mother wrote. ‘Come home to mama, come home to mama,’ she pleads, voice strong and clear, back turned to us, facing away from her microphone, the small chorus of her backing band rising in harmony, her voice rising higher yet above it all, away from everything. And we, as one, go with her.

Martha Wainwright was at Revelation Ashford. She tours the UK until 3 February 2017.