For her debut London show, Natalie Prass is in excessively humble mood. Every song is either preceded or followed by a flutter of nervous laughter. She also confesses to having been unwell in the days leading up to the show, so much so that they prepared the spoken reprise of Your Fool specifically for the Dublin gig, as she had been ‘basically unable to sing’.
There is very little evidence of this tonight, save for the very occasional vulnerability in the top end of her range, something that only adds to the emotional heft of her moving, sometimes stirring songs. Christy is transposed down five steps to make it more manageable, but everywhere else, Prass seems confident and commanding at the front of a supremely tight small ensemble. It is staggering to think that this is only their second gig together.
Any fears that her songs would lose their potency given the inevitable limitations of the live environment (no horn section or orchestra tonight) prove to be completely unfounded. This is not least because her pure, fragile and unshowy voice helps the songs to stand as distinctive works in their own right, even without the lush arrangements the Spacebomb team brought to her outstanding debut album. Not only this, but she has some of those musicians with her tonight (also the core of Matthew E White’s touring band), including Trey Pollard. In addition to being the chief arranger for the album, Pollard is also an exceptional musician, laying down intuitively soulful guitar licks and switching to Wurlitzer piano when required.
Without the lush adornments, this music assumes a more forthright edge. For example, Bird Of Prey, light and airy in its album version becomes tougher and more muscular in live performance and Violently achieves an intensity that renders it a little closer in spirit to its title. Drums and bass prove to be brilliantly locked in on both renditions, further adding to the sense that this is an exceptional band.
The extraordinary My Baby Don’t Understand Me retains its magic, focusing in more vividly on Prass’ heartbreaking vocals, its quieter moments becoming even more exposed. A string quartet take to the stage to help render the baroque flavourings of Christy a little more accurately, although the performance is slightly hesitant. Transposed down, it seems a little less wild and unhinged.
Prass is an endearing and humble presence on stage, the slightly nervous laugh that concludes Your Fool replicated not just at the end of the song but liberally throughout her between song chatter. She singles out a jacket worn by one audience member: “I’d wear that,” she attests. She informs us that friends and family are in the audience, and she appears to see the gig as part celebration and gathering. She is sincerely apologetic for being stricken with illness, although the impact on her voice was barely detectable for most of the show.
Whilst the album might risk pigeon-holing Prass as a country-soul chanteuse, studied in valuable reference points and simmering with emotion, she demonstrates her versatility as a writer and performer here. This is partially achieved through switching between guitar and keyboards, but also in veering beyond the album sequence in her choice of material. The sensual, sultry cover of Janet Jackson’s Any Time, Any Place suggests that Prass’ relationship with soul music extends well beyond the core ’60s and ’70s material that most transparently informs the album, whilst Jass has a sprightly, nimble groove demonstrating that Prass has range as well as depth. If this is a sign of what might come in the future, it is very encouraging indeed.