In a year of firsts for your reviewer, three more in one day; my first visit to the O2 Arena, which in its short history has gone from great white elephant to post-millennial shopping mall, and my first invitation to the Water Margin Jazz Club. A low ceiling, a long bar and an intimate stage – it’s a space made for low-key gigs, prepared with meticulous care by manager Sydney and promoter John, both clearly passionate about ensuring the audience enjoys their evening. It quickly fills with an expectant buzz ahead of the third of my firsts (?!), a live encounter with The Webb Sisters.
Charley and Hattie, late of the Garden of England, latterly key components of Leonard Cohen’s never-ending, globe-eating tour, multi-instrumentalists and tappers of the finest quality harmonic ley-lines for the enjoyment of us mere mortals. I suspect they’ve played larger halls in their travels, but they walk through the crowd and onto the stage as if they own it, which for the next 90 minutes, they do.
They open with a-cappella harmonies on a cover of Christopher/James/Carson’s Always On My Mind, first made famous by Brenda Lee and Gwen McRae but know the world over for Elvis’s interpretation. It’s sung to an alternative melody and works brilliantly, throwing us off-guard from the start – anyone expecting a run-through of album tracks is already off-balance. Torches sees the first extended use of Hattie’s harp, which is used as an acoustic guitar might be to add depth to percussion, Hattie hand-clapping and beating its side with her palm, not to mention the effortless and exquisite playing of its strings.
Three songs in, another cover and another alternative arrangement, this time for Tracy Chapman’s Baby Can I Hold You. It’s a wonderful take on a great song and like the rest of the listeners I am now hooked. Choreographed handclaps and tense harp in the verses on Words That Mobilise introduce an element of stagecraft, the song reminiscent of early Tori Amos. Baroque Thoughts has a beautiful melody and then Charley is introducing Cohen’s If It Be Your Will. She talks in warm appreciation of their initial six-month stint with the legend that turned into a six year trip across the planet (including a concert in the main O2 arena next door). A fully warmed up audience responds to a ‘have you seen us before?’ question with cries of New Zealand and Croatia – we are truly international tonight. The song itself carries the burden of Cohen’s name and heightened expectation but is carried off without any trace of effort.
After so many years playing together, the chemistry between these sisters is obvious without being overt – some of the communication between songs or whilst tuning up is almost telepathic; a nod here, a smile there, a silent count-in. The harmonies are flawless. They mess around with them too, overlapping, counter-pointing, swapping lead and backing at a moment’s notice. They change instruments at will; Hattie from harp to (I think) mandolin, Charley from one guitar to another, beating out tambourine rhythms with her foot.
The room is gripped. It’s unlikely they’d move if a herd of bison stampeded for the bar. It May Be Spring, But I Still Need A Coat has a slow intro and turns into a plea for intimacy. Missing Person, written with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, has harmonies to die for, before another Cohen number Show Me The Place has the feel of bringing the night to a close. Goodnight Song ‘..close your eyes / open your heart..’ reinforces the perception. This gossamer-light lullaby could send us into the South London night privileged to have witnessed a great night, but there’s more to come. 1,000 Stars closes the show – ‘It’s about falling in love’ has a touch of Shelly Poole and Red Sky July about it.
Unsurprisingly, they return to the stage shortly afterwards, but instead of staying there, they converse for a moment then walk into the crowd to stand amongst the tables for the best cover of the night, Cheap Trick’s I Want You To Want Me. Again, deviating from the original arrangement highlights the frivolity of the original rock song – it’s an absolute delight and the sisters clearly think so too, wide smiles evident throughout. They follow that by perching on the bar for Heart Like A Wheel and after a short break man their own merchandise stall. There are clearly a lot of familiar faces to them and they seem happy to stay and chat and catch up. Creative and cohesive on stage, charming and patient off, with the beginnings of a body of work many major label artists would be proud of, The Webb Sisters prove at WM Jazz that they can hold large stadia and intimate club crowds in equal thrall.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Always On My Mind (Christopher/James/Carson)
In Your Father’s Eyes
Baby Can I Hold You (T. Chapman)
Words That Mobilise
If It Be Your Will (L/Cohen)
It May Be Spring, But I Still Need A Coat
Show Me The Place (L.Cohen)
I Want You To Want Me (Cheap Trick)
Heart Like A Wheel (K & A McGarrigle)