Live Music + Gig Reviews

Stephanie Dosen + Jill Barber @ Spitz, London

15 August 2007

Stephanie Dosen

Stephanie Dosen

One of the best things about country music and, let’s face it, there’s a lot of good things about country music is that it one of the only genres of music that female acts can sit alongside their male counterparts in near parity.

While the squally wonders of PJ Harvey and Patti Smith are often lost in a deluge of rock music composed solely by sweaty-palmed Y chromosome-bearers, and R&B’s chanteuses are, at best, an ageing (male) rap star’s protégé, country gals are traditionally treated with the same kind of artistic merit as the cowboys that infect the Nashville airwaves. For every Johnny you’ve a June, every Willie Nelson has a Dolly Parton and, well, the Dixie Chicks have sold about a gazillion records across the Atlantic, a feat matched only by… er… Shania Twain.

So it’s good that this happy ratio is recognised by the lovely folks at Loose Records (home of Jack White-approved rockers Blanche and jaw-dropping troubadours Monkey Swallows The Universe), who have decided to dedicate an entire night’s worth of music to the girls of country at the soon-to-be bulldozed Spitz. And yes, there’s cheesecloth. And steel guitar. And due to the presence of a large and particularly sweaty crowd, like it or not, these ladies certainly ain’t gonna be lonesome tonight.

Stripping back to the bare essentials, Nova Scotia songstress Jill Barber takes to the stage with just an acoustic guitar and a red-checked dress for company, and proceeds to stop all conversation in the bar with a poised and elegant set of lovelorn americana. Taking in both her recent record For All Time and debut EP Oh Heart, Barber is flirty, flighty and possessed with a note-perfect Jazz voice, lending an expectedly sultry quality to the evening which you’d be forgiven for thin king involved little more than a hoedown around a barrel of moonshine.

When I’m Making Love to You and Hard Line are perfectly composed romantic vignettes, and you can hear the jaws of some of the men in the bar hit the floor during the gloriously filthy Parisian-influenced Measure & Scales, as she sings of a jazz pianist “feeling my ivory… skin beneath his fingers/ playing scales up and down me”.

Headlining is fast-rising Bella Union star Stephanie Dosen, taking to the stage with an all-riot grrl backing group. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to an immaculately distressed Barbie doll in a rumpled white dress and puffed-up hair that would make Amy Winehouse cry with envy, Dosen’s music is a thing of otherworldly beauty. Supposedly recorded in a haunted grain silo in the middle of Wisconsin, the songs from her debut album A Lily For The Spectre are haunting and ethereal, especially on Vinalhaven Harbor – sung with just a gently picked guitar for backing – which is as windswept and atmospheric as the title suggests.

Elsewhere, single Only Getting Better is given a meaty rock-tinge, with violinist, double bassist and drummer all speeding up to give the kind of oomph perhaps lacking somewhat on record. Standout set opener This Joy is a slowburning post-coital hymn, rising to a startling, violin-drenched crescendo that’s almost uncomfortably moving as if Dosen has allowed a room full of complete strangers unlimited access to her most intimate thoughts for a few brief moments.

Some of her other intimate thoughts, though, are slightly less sensual anyone who has seen her live will testify that her between-song banter skirts a thin line between confident, quirky songbird and batshit-crazy-Phoebe-from-Friends eccentricity, and a long and convoluted story about a piece of chewing gum leaves most of the audience none the wiser as to what she is. We, however, are always a little susceptible to radiant blond chanteuses, so we’re plumping for “adorable” here.

Despite this, like Jill Barber before her, Dosen’s work is remarkably strong. As the final bars of the glorious vampire-love tale Death And The Maiden whisper their way out of the venue, we’re left with the impression that, in its own quiet way at least, girl-power is alive, well and living in a barn somewhere in Kansas.

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More on Stephanie Dosen
Stephanie Dosen @ Hoxton Square Bar + Kitchen, London
Stephanie Dosen + Jill Barber @ Spitz, London
Stephanie Dosen: “There are so many singer songwriters. Round every single corner there’s a million billion of them” – Interview
Stephanie Dosen – A Lily For The Spectre