Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Shortwave Set + Martina Topley-Bird @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

18 June 2008

The Shortwave Set

The Shortwave Set

As part of this year’s Meltdown festival, curated by Massive Attack, it could be argued that tonight belonged to super-producer Danger Mouse, the two acts on show recently releasing sophomore albums overseen by the man himself.

First up was Martina Topley-Bird. Arriving on stage in a shock of bleached-blonde hair and to a shock of feedback, she and her band stormed through a riveting set, largely showcasing her excellent new album The Blue God.

Showing off her versatility by getting through a staggering eighteen songs in just over an hour, she pretty much covered the latest material, including singles Carnies and Poison, a feisty version of Shangri La and a swinging rendition of the funky April Grove.

While there were occasional pitch problems with her voice, it’s a fine instrument, and when she finds her comfort zone, such as on Valentine, supported by a fantastic bunch of backing singers including the wonderful Cath Coffey, the vocals sailed effortlessly.

But it wasn’t all about the new album. She managed to remind us of some of the best moments from debut album Quixotic, with an atmospheric Sandpaper Kisses and a stripped back Anything, accompanied by double bass and accordion. There were also a few interludes where Martina, her singers and the drummer were able to show off some incredible, natural rhythm, intertwining with each other seamlessly to add a classic, almost tribal element to the evening.

She ended her set by picking up an electric guitar herself and demonstrating the rock chick inside with a banging Too Tough To Die, crowning a superb, self-assured performance.

The Shortwave Set, meanwhile, had a few technical problems to overcome, with the balance heavily weighted in favour of the vocals to the detriment of the little quirks and intricacies that help make their music so interesting. With sampled material at a premium and the Van Dyke Parks string parts in short supply the stage was relatively bare, though the vocal trade-offs between Andrew Pettit and Ulrike Bjorsne covered the distance.

Their arrival in boiler suits suggested briefly they’d wandered into the wrong room altogether, and when Pettit confessed they’d been “doing some painting out the back”, we weren’t altogether sure whether to believe him or not!

With the music from Replica Sun Machine stripped back and amplified, material from first album The Debt Collection fared better, the swooning strings of Is It Any Wonder? competing with affirmative encore Repeat To Fade for choice song of the night. Elsewhere there was a gruff, blustery feel to the songs briefly punctuated by an acoustic version of House Of Lies, its blissful setting belying the barbed vocal from Pettit.

The impression here was that the Deptford trio are still finding their feet in the live environment, and it’s almost as if they weren’t expecting to have to play such high profile gigs. Here they delivered, yet remain a live work in progress.

• Additional reporting by Ben Hogwood

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The Shortwave Set + Martina Topley-Bird @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London