There are worst places to wash up than The Slaughtered Lamb on a fine Summer’ evening in June. Windows wide open to the Clerkenwell streets, the hostelry fills fast with the young and trendy workers of this gentrified area of North London, keen to explore the varied draught ales on tap. As the light begins to wane, however, attention diverts to the performance area downstairs, where a trio of artists prepare to celebrate the album launch of headliner Laura Victoria. A celebrated fixture on the UK’s touring circuit already, Head Above Water represents Victoria’s debut recording effort as a solo artist, and she is clearly buzzing with anticipation at the opportunity to perform songs from a diverse and arresting set of folk-pop that Folk Radio’s own Simon Holland described as ‘passionate, forthright, wistful and dreamy’.
Prior to her cello-led magic, the audience are granted sets from two invited artists who do their best to warm the crowd up. First off, The No Frills Band, a collective of traditional instrument players led by Johnnie B, who collaborated with Laura Victoria on Head Above Water. Their set is a wonderfully international trip, beginning with a gentle, lilting instrumental from Galicia. The gear is cranked for the follow-up, fast and furious Bluegrass.
Johnnie’s first vocal is applied to a hybrid folk-blues – ‘can I get you now, or must I hesitate?’ They hit escape velocity once more on an Eastern European tune that moves faster than Usain and carries an underlying, sinister edge in the melody. It’s breathless stuff and a brilliant way to fill the passport without moving from the bar. Black Water Side and Rock, Salt and Nails (requested by Laura) continue the quality, and they finish with an a-capella Mole on which the knowledgeable crowd join in lustily. Sterling stuff.
Minnie Birch beguiles in different ways. Firstly, it’s just her and a guitar. Her music errs towards singer-songwriter rather than trad. but is no less engaging. She starts with a gutsy, vocal only cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s God Moves On The Water that highlights a beautiful voice caught somewhere between crystal clear and low-register emotive. She’s a confident performer and accomplished on guitar, proven by the sad Wise Words and the cover of BB King’s The Blues Come Over Me – ‘It’ll sound different, ‘cos I don’t sound like BB’.
Victoria and Birch met at the Edinburgh Festival. To date, Birch has released an EP. Her debut album ‘Floundering’ is released June 22 and she sings about the consequences of making a record on the beautiful Unravelling. She also shows her mettle on Dagger, the lyrics belying her gentle image – ‘I will watch you bleed before I go’. Floundering, her final number, cleverly segues into an acoustic version of Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt, highlighting her skill with a melody and a modern approach to her music.
Waiting for Laura to begin her set, the crowd are engaged in a game of pass the parcel, a non-descript package being handed around the attendees to the accompaniment of one third of The No Frills Band. The winner ends up with a copy of Head Above Water. Meanwhile, the rest of us are offered cakes baked by Laura’s mother.
Laura Victoria is a fizzing ball of energy with a broad smile and a breathless spoken delivery who sounds genuinely excited to be on stage. She shares it with Jo Cooper (banjo and fiddle) and Sarah-Jane Miller (guitar, steel mandolin, vocals) and a deeply burnished cello that she cradles like a small child. They open with Rock, Salt and Nails, Victoria’s version arranged very differently to the No Frills Band, propelled by rhythmic strums of the cello. It’s a strut rather than a roll, pulled together by her extraordinary, keening vocal, part child-like, part open-hearted confessional.
Half-Hearted Love, on the album one of the poppier numbers, arrives in far more dramatic colours live, the verse structure resolving smoothly into the one-line, descending note chorus. Lord In Heaven appropriates a Blues backbone, the vocal perfect for the pleading nature of the lyric. It’s a strong opening trio followed by the first of several new tracks aired across the evening, Victoria’s cello doubling as a percussion instrument. The song rises in a crescendo towards a furious chorus, the open disbelief at a love wronged mirrored in the singer’s very expressive face – Laura will never play poker very well on this showing, but it makes for a spell-binding, all-consuming performance.
Album tracks are interspersed with newer songs. Head Above Water is strident, a traditional arrangement of Newcastle’s The Waters Of Tyne flowing and sprightly, and new song Today’s Another Day, given the subject-matter so far, almost embarrassingly optimistic. In fact, the non-album tracks err towards the pop end of Victoria’s palette and they suit live performance well. Penultimate number If Hell Freezes Over returns us to the confessional nature of her debut, and a great version of Deep Elem Blues brings the house down.
It’s a delight to see an artist revel in live performance. Add to that her genuine excitement at having the opportunity to showcase material that now sits proudly on an album, and the variety on show as support, and it makes for an evening of great music enjoyed by a crowd buoyed by the effort Victoria has put in to make the atmosphere so warm and convivial. Laughs and angst; traditional and modern; children’s games and cake – this is how you launch an album. Splendid.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Album out now. Copies available HERE
13 Jun: Blaydon Races Gig, The Finborough Arms, Earls Court
28 Jun: Crawley Folk Festival
30 Jul: Cambridge Folk Festival, The People’s Front Room Stage
11 Aug: Edinburgh Fringe, Lost Horizons Folk Club