Words by Ed King / Below pics courtesy of Spence Cater – www.spencecaterphotography.com
“…and they’re not depressing. I promise you.”
My friend agrees to meet me at Ort Cafe, where Rhiannon Mair and Louise Petit are playing tonight. He’s just come back from a romantic break in New York and my “…two female singer songwriters” description didn’t fill him with confidence, an evening of Tori Amos not being the best cure for love sickness or jet lag.
I reassure him, “honestly, I listen to cheery music too,” but I know he’s hedging his bets. “I’ll drive over and we can walk up,” he replies. I agree and hang up. I want to prove him wrong, to show I don’t need severed heart strings to feel alive or validated; but a quick scan of my iTunes account and you’d probably not believe me either.
Luckily Rhiannon Mair is in full swing as we arrive, her one woman ensemble punching out the album track ‘Why Can’t I Be Your Girlfriend?’ to a reassuringly packed Ort Café and attentive front row. Well Ms Mair, the big loves in my life have either got married, come out or moved to Berlin – so there’s a couple of options, but the teenage accusation of this chorus turns me off a little too; detracing from an otherwise potent melody. But I am often blind to other’s subtext, so could be missing an intention. And the front row doesn’t seem to mind.
I pick my way to the bar and order a bottle of ale for my friend and a mug of house red for me. I love Ort Café. The room erupts as Rhiannon Mair finishes her song and beams out at the crowd; there is something so endearing you just want to clone or hug her. As Mair’s concentrated metronome stare and loop pedal introduce ‘Something Special’, one of my favourite tracks from her debut album – It Goes Like This, I nudge my friend in the ribs. No white horses, cornflake girl, or pesters and lesters and jesters to be seen.
Next up is a new track, with the working tile ‘Inspire Me’ although Mair is “…open to suggestions.” I keep my ego on alert for an opportunity to be clever; mercifully giving up by the second verse. A slow finger pluck and half strum introduce the new song, before opening up a thumped string rhythm and increased tempo. This is great. It’s better than great. And its making the front row do weird little shoulder twitches. I’m not a song writer, and certainly not a guitarist, but there’s something ‘firmer’ about this track – as I scribble in my note book.
A cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘Strangelove’ comes next, offering the perfect platform for Mair’s husky to high vocals (Gahan would be proud) before an enthusiastic audience quite literally demand an encore. Mair bashfully looks up for timekeeping approval, possibly noticing she is penned in against the far wall (the front row now resembling a rugby scrum) before delivering ‘Love & Hate’, her “angry break up song”, with eyes closed and a wry smile.
To close her set we get another new song, ‘Dig a Little Deeper’, and another introduction to the Rhiannon Mair of Album’s Future; a looped confluence of scraped and thumped strings, behind a strong melody, with vocals that skip between a footstep and stamp. It’s genuinely exciting, and I regret this only her second time performing in Birmingham. Rhiannon Mair is someone you should certainly see live.
Another mug of house red and its Louise Petit’s turn on stage, joined by a double bass and clandestine percussion. I miss the name of Petit’s opening track, but the soft vocal led melody and slow ache of the double bass are a good enough distraction.
‘Home’ continues the vocal led approach, this time with some beautifully subtle harmonies, before the irritatingly catchy ‘Love Is Pure’ makes the front row break into a seemly synchronised two shoulder shuffle. The title of this track would normally be enough to send me hurtling to my ball of bile, that tight little dark place where I keep my wit and my enemies, but it doesn’t.
Maybe I’m maturing, or perhaps giving up, but Louise Petit stands as testament to my recently learnt ability to listen to Folk singer songwriters without suicidal tendencies. I feel strangely proud of myself for knowing some of the words; although the front row appears to know considerably more.
Again I miss the title to the next song, although I catch enough lyrics to know it’s something to do with a tree. Or love. Or the love of a tree, I’m not certain. But lines such as “do you want the life raft or the sharks” and “my lungs want to scream” are delivered by beautifully sustained vocals in a song with not many hiding places. A soft-yet-subtle-yet-angry lament, and a powerful trick.
Louise Petit is also proffering a canopy of new morsels tonight, and takes us through some tracks from her soon to be released new album. Following the vocal led approach of their predecessors, songs such as ‘Lights’, ‘Happy Man’ and ‘Lost to the Weight of the World’ bring a bit more fire in the belly (and at one point a tiny yellow xylophone) but all continue Petit’s delicious storytelling and imagery; like Suzanne Vega singing Christmas carols with Moomintroll.
Petit’s recent other half joins her for some perfectly placed piano (ALLETERATION’S ALWAYS ACE) on ‘Plastic & Glue’, a track not suitable for a jaded 36 year old on his second mug of wine, before closing her set with ‘Demons’ – one of Louise Petit’s most well known and addictive songs. There is something about the way she sings “…show their teeth” that I can’t quite let go, despite every cynical bone in my body telling me to run for the door.
As the dust settles, and the front row recover from their frenetic rock, clap, shoulder shuffle finale, I turn to my friend – who is Cheshire Cat grinning in either appreciation or confirmation.
“Yeah, I really enjoyed that,” he admits, “to be honest, I was expecting something a bit more miserable and self indulgent.” He smiles. I say nothing but smirk with inward vindication. “Let’s head back so I can pick up my car… you must be growing up.”
It’s amazing how short some feelings last.
For more on Rhiannon Mair, visit http://www.rhiannonmair.com
For more on Louise Petit, visit http://louisepetit.com
For more on Ort Café, including full listings of music, exhibitions and events, visit http://ortcafe.co.uk