Live Music + Gig Reviews

Martha Wainwright @ The Room, Sheffield

4 May 2005

Even if you’ve lived in Sheffield for a number of years, it’s easy to miss The Room, tucked away in the centre of town behind a multi-storey car park.

Formerly known as the Fez Club, this tiny venue holds a couple of hundred people and managed a bit of a scoop tonight in playing host to Martha Wainwright.

The only problem with The Room is that as the bar is so close to the stage, the resultant chatter could easily put off a support act. This appeared to be the case with Johnathan Rice, who didn’t get off to a great start anyway as some rather annoying microphone feedback was buzzing throughout the first half of his opening number.

Under other circumstances though, it’s fair to assume that he could have held the audience spellbound. With just Rice and his guitarist (introduced simply as “Neil”), this was acoustic music in the mould of his namesake Damien. Opener I Wouldn’t Miss It For The World demonstrated a lovely line in memorable lyrical couplets (“An opportunist waiting for a chance/to f*ck you over leave you flat/take off your dress and go straight to the news”) and some of his melodies were heartbreakingly good, especially the closing Acrobat.

The only problem was that Rice seemed a bit defensive. He berated the crowd for not showing more enthusiasm, but as a voice shouted back: “What do you want us to do?” This was a set that the majority of the audience wouldn’t have heard before, of quiet, hushed folk – all that we could do was listen and applaud, which we did.

“I usually get something back from an audience,” Rice muttered between songs, “I’m not feeling anything from you tonight,” before shouting “shut up” halfway through a song towards the bar chatter. Maybe he’d just had a long day, but his considerable talent was certainly there for all to see.

Everyone knows about Martha Wainwright’s talent of course. There’s been so many column inches about her famous brother, father, mother and aunt that it’s easy to forget sometimes that she’s a superb songwriter in her own right. She skips onto The Room’s stage in a most unassuming manner, picks up her guitar and immediately mesmerises the entire club with a haunting rendition of the song notoriously dedicated to her father – Bloody Mother F*cking Asshole – with her eyes half closed and gently swaying behind the microphone stand, it’s hard to take your eyes off her.

It takes a strong mind to open a set with one of your more celebrated records, but Wainwright has a lot more gems stored up. After welcoming her excellent band onto stage, they launched into the lilting, country-like When The Day Is Short, and it’s immediately apparent just how well they manage to recreate the feel of the album.

All the highlights from her debut album are covered, with Factory sounding particularly good tonight and an explanation of why the wonderful Oprah Song has now been rechristened TV Show (“we didn’t want to start going to court with Ms Winfrey…” Wainwright wryly commented). It was Wainwright’s voice that stood out though – she really does have an exquisitely beautiful voice that can go from feisty and challenging one minute to vulnerable and lovelorn the next, often in the space of a single song.

As well as her own wonderful material, she has a nice line in cover versions too. The overlooked Leonard Cohen classic Tower Of Song was given the Martha treatment – with deadpan lines such as “Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey/I ache in the places where I used to play” it’s tough to improve on Cohen’s original but Wainwright certainly came close. She also closed the set with a stark and gorgeous version of an old French folk song which sent goosebumps up the spine.

“I wish you guys the best of luck tomorrow,” Wainwright said with one eye on the next day’s General Election, “you’ve sure got a difficult decision to make”. One wag in the audience shouted: “Vote Martha!”. A smile crept across her face. “Nah… I’d just love you and leave you!” she replied. Maybe, but we’d forgive you Martha if you put on another show like this one.

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