Live Music + Gig Reviews

Nina Nastasia @ Scala, London

28 November 2006

There’s a lad in the audience, over to my right, who’s clearly under the impression that Nina Nastasia is here to perform for him alone. “Play ATP next year”, he hollers at the first opportunity, making foreheads scrunch as we wonder if it’s an obscure song we haven’t heard of.

You can see Nastasia’s cogs whirring too. She tries and fails to say something funny. A hopeful “I love you” brings the soft-spoken reply “I’ll be your private dancer” and a first laugh from the audience – she is clearly not at peace with engaging in between-song banter, and I don’t think anyone would mind if she just put her head down and sang.

Nina Nastasia makes that kind of immediate connection with the listener, makes them feel like she understands their problems and is singing for them alone. An air of wistful melancholy cloaks the Scala when she takes to the stage, as surely as the dribbles of dry ice descending from the fog machine throughout the performance, and Nastasia’s pure voice soars up to the former cinema’s pitted ceiling. She certainly has, on this showing, the power to be a scintillating performer, but overall the night didn’t quite gel for me.

Perhaps it was a lack of confidence in the band as a whole, an unwillingness to let rip and risk looking foolish. Perhaps it was the odd orchestrations of some of the older tracks, or the fact the material came from several different albums, favouring her latest, but reflecting several musical shifts, so that some songs sat uneasily together. Counting Up Your Bones, from the start of the set, was a real attention-grabber, providing moments of brilliance. But fans who admire her earlier, more orchestral soundscape output may have found themselves, like me, uneasy at the sudden bursts of unconvincing experimentation on keyboard and cello, and shuffling their feet about two thirds of the way through as she launched into yet another very pretty, beautifully sung lullaby.

The first one was riveting, showing off the range of her voice. A song like Why Don’t You Stay Home with its simple progressions and eddying mournfulness will always get the audience’s attention. But after several songs in this vein, I was splitting my attention between glaring at the talking girls behind me and wondering why she would tour small venues with a five piece band including an electric cellist then perform a set most of which would have been effective with just her and a guitar?

The main support act, by contrast, came on like old pros used to each other’s ways. Jeffrey Lewis chatters away between songs like you’re bessie mates, and sings silly and touching songs on a range of surprising subjects (the history of Rough Trade Records, for instance). Like the cool love child of Jonathan Richman and Sufjan Stevens, able to be thought provoking, sentimental and funny all in one package, or an Earth Two version of They Might Be Giants if they had taken to banjos instead of accordions, Lewis is a born entertainer who loves to tell tales. The audience listened intently and laughed uproariously at the right moments and applauded when Green Gartside from Scritti Politti turned up to do a number.

Much as she might admire Jeffrey Lewis , a fact she mentions early on, Nastasia is never going to be a casual performer like him, nor should she be. She could be a fantastic singer-songwriter, that’s evident, but she also has so many other facets to keep exploring. It’s not as though we need another sweet-voiced girl with a guitar. When she can stand up, still and strong, with a band behind her who’ll stretch her vocal performance, and find the right balance between dreamy, beautiful folk songs and experimental cacophony, then she will be able not only to invite people into her melancholy personal musical space but to keep them there as long as she pleases, entranced.

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