After 44 years away working as a dental hygienist, the timing of Linda Perhacs’ return could hardly be better. She returns to a musical world currently fascinated by the rejuvenation of the ‘lost artist’, the success last year of Bill Fay’s Life Is People being a prime example.
In 1970, Perhacs made Parallelograms, a bold collection of songs with a strong musical and personal concept, but the album lacked commercial weight and her involvement with music proved short lived. The album has since assumed a new life and authority, loved by a key coterie of music journalists and given additional kudos by an avant-folk musical community, including Devendra Banhart and Julia Holter, who provides backing vocals on Perhacs’ forthcoming second album The Soul Of All Natural Things, set for release in 2014 through Sufjan Stevens‘ Asthmatic Kitty label.
Cecil Sharp House is the home of the English Folk and Dance Society and it provides a warm and relaxed atmosphere for Perhacs’ return, although her music is quite some distance removed from any English folk tradition. Even a spurious term such as ‘psych-folk’ does not quite do justice to her mysterious, meditative and otherworldly sound. Whilst Perhacs appears to be a natural collaborator (and she allows her supporting musicians each to have a moment in the spotlight tonight), there is little doubt that much of the brilliance of Parallelograms can be ascribed to her elaborate and immersive vocal arrangements, perhaps drawn more from early music than from any contemporary form.
There are no gimmicks or multi-tracking tonight. Instead, Perhacs is joined by her new producers and co-writers Fernando Padomo and Chris Price (playing guitars, bass and keyboards between them) and by vocalists Michelle Vidal and Durga McBroom, the latter a regular backing vocalist for Pink Floyd and the vocalist for short lived ’90s dance pop group Blue Pearl. Both are powerful and distinctive vocalists in their own right, and could easily overpower Perhacs’ frailer, more sensitive melodic lines. Tonight, however, they achieve an uncannily natural and effective blend. They may be performing slightly reduced versions of Perhacs’ elaborate canons and harmonies, but it works tremendously well nonetheless. The stage set-up, with all five performers seated in a row, serves to further emphasise a feeling of equality, respect and mutual appreciation that already emanates from these musicians.
They open with Chimacum Rain, the delicate and sublime track that opens the Parallelograms album. In most cases, opening a live set with an album’s opening track can seem like a predictable cop-out but, in this case, there could hardly have been a more welcome sound. This is something many in the audience might have only dreamed they would hear. Tonight, it sounds as mysterious and otherworldly as its recorded incarnation, but also vividly and delightfully real. It is later superseded by a revelatory version of Parallelograms itself, a song that may never have been intended for live performance but which now sounds like an intricate and challenging puzzle.
The new material is perhaps a little more direct and straightforward, although this should in no sense diminish its effect. Perhacs’ artistry is still very much intact, especially on Freely (a new Perhacs melody inspired by the accompaniment for the Devendra Banhart track of the same name), which somehow manages to sound fragile and liberated all at once. Best of the new batch of songs by some distance is Prisms Of Glass, which perhaps exhibits the strongest continuity with the refractions and illusions of Parallelograms. Another new song, Children, perhaps suffers slightly from a certain earnestness, but any enjoyment of this music probably requires a certain leap of faith when it comes to mysticism and spirituality.
Perhacs’ notable generosity extends to allowing all her musicians to have one song where they each take the limelight. It is perhaps inevitable that these sometimes feel a little pedestrian or tentative in light of Perhacs’ more unusual work, although Michelle Vidal’s impassioned piece of gospel works well enough, and Durga McBroom’s soulful sense of imagination and melancholy might have worked superbly in a different setting.
These solo sets never encroach on the magic of the overall performance, however, and it is Perhacs’ more humble and majestic presence that remains the most memorable aspect of the performance. Throughout, Perhacs is a calm, reflective, relaxing but totally engaging presence. She talks of having experienced visions. She must have been a quite superb dentist.