It is a balmy, muggy night in Birmingham. I return to the venue and room I first played in 1990. The artists playing tonight were not even born when my band took to the stage here… Yes, that makes me feel very, very old. I was given a track a week ago, with a view to reviewing a local artist’s new ep, within ten seconds of hearing ‘Electric’ by Charlotte Carpenter, I was sold and quickly asked to review the last night of her tour to support the release of her latest EP, How Are We Ever To Know? (released 10 June 2016). It is heartwarming to know this venue still exists and there are still exceptional artists making music and trying to find their audience.
Aaron Jackson is on first and at seventeen deserves respect for just getting on stage and singing at such a tender age. He is a decent singer and plays his acoustic guitar well enough, but it is just a strummed accompaniment rather than an exciting musical layer to the songs. For this reason the songs move along with little or no dynamics and interesting rhythms are virtually non-existent. When you are just a voice and guitar, to rise above the thronging masses of other singer-songwriters you have to bring something different to an audience – Mr Jackson has made a good start and needs to find something that sets him apart from the next singer.
Following Jackson just happens to be Bryony Williams who sets herself apart from her contemporaries by playing electric guitar and rewriting the book on songwriting. She admits part way through her set that the songs played tonight are stripped back versions of her EP tracks that feature a full band; maybe the transition and resulting rearrangements need some attention, because for me the set seems under-rehearsed and unfocused, slightly rambling, but with glints of beauty in Bryony’s whispered vocals. She manages to play songs with no melodic hooks and no memorable parts, which, if this was her intention, she pulls it off masterfully.
Unlike many other semi-pro artists trying to make their way in the world the two support acts are not overly proficient, and timing and tuning issues marked both performances. They both are very young so I will cut them some slack, but really they need to listen to themselves playing live and pick out the problems – improve by studying the art and craft of performance, not just endlessly playing and repeating the same mistakes. On a positive note both artists could definitely sing; just neither could write a song that didn’t meander to a slow dead end.
As if to provide a diametric contrast to the support acts, Charlotte Carpenter is the consummate performer and shows what it takes to craft songs and mould a set to take an audience on an emotional journey. Charlotte performs all of the tracks from her new EP (“Am I Alone In This?”, “Last Love”, “Burn”, “Electric” and “Contracts”), completing the set with a choice few cuts from her earlier EPs (including “Sometimes the Blues” “Mean Time” and “Wasted”). What is immediately obvious is how in sync the band is – Charlotte‘s close friends (and astonishing musicians), Lee and Matt make up a tight three piece, on drums, keyboards and vocals, and second guitar, slide guitar and Moog foot bass (played at the same time as playing the guitar, wow!).
The tempo changes, the breaks, the riffs, the grooves are just effortless for them – songs flow and pauses are not jerky or awkward, but perfectly timed. There is no conductor, but it feels as though there could be as every note slips beautifully into place. I guess there is a simple answer to this: great musicians practice and rehearse. “Contracts” is a case in point – a song that starts quietly and unassumingly then grows and builds, then dies and swells again. I returned to the recorded version after the show, as it had not made an impression on first hearing and it is a song of great intelligence and emotional maturity. Imagine Carole King channeling Jeff Buckley and mixing in a little Billie Holiday.
Which leads me to an older song, “Sometimes the Blues”, from Charlotte’s last EP. There are moments when I can hear Billie Holiday singing the words, that admittedly I thought a little too obvious at first (in a “I’m singing about the blues in a blues song because I sing the blues” way). However, some of the songs written in the 30’s and 40’s use this tactic and they don’t sound out of place, and in that context and with Billie’s voice duetting with Charlotte’s in my head, I thought my chest was going to burst.
The obvious hit single in the making “Electric” is a simple enough song with an infectious groove and a great guitar riff. It is terrifically understated coming as it does with no snare crack at all for punctuation, just a hypnotising thud from the toms. Somehow Charlotte’s use of clichéd phrases like “I’m electric”, “Stay with me”, “Don’t be scared now” don’t sound out of place or hackneyed. I believe this is due to her phrasing and stunning voice – she sings it like a call to arms and by the end I feel like screaming out “I’m with you!” If only Dylan had written this in 1965, his folk fans would have been won over immediately. Of course the song refers to Charlotte’s own discovery of the electric guitar and how it has matured her sound and songwriting. There is a distinct development from her earlier work and it is clear she is improving with every release.
For all of Charlotte and her band’s technical prowess, there is never a feeling of them being over rehearsed or working to a metronome – they are in time with each other and when you witness such fine artistry it is blindingly obvious because it sounds utterly wondrous. You never feel the musicians are being self-indulgent and the listener is always in mind. The last track of the set “Wasted” rocks like The Black Keys and could, in the wrong hands, end up as an elongated ‘give everyone a solo’ track, as it contains stunning guitar riffs and a ‘Bonham’ drum pattern to die for. However, Charlotte definitely belongs to the ‘leave them wanting more’ camp and the song brings the night to a close with a mighty but short bang.
The set is beautifully paced and faultlessly executed, my only minor criticism is that just when I thought Charlotte was going to lose herself in the overwhelming emotion of the moment, she withdrew back into her totally professional shell. I guess this stems from her desire to be in control, as she has set up her own record label and self-released EPs for a number of years, with seemingly no help from the music business.
I felt throughout the performance Charlotte had something in reserve; an additional spark that she was choosing not to use. There is a noticeable difference between the way she performs on her new EP and tonight; she is rawer and richer live, and you feel this change is when she feeds off an audience’s affection, in contrast to singing in a recording studio. However, she still feels a little restrained and I was longing for her to allow her music to move her beyond the confines of a small stage in Kings Heath into the stratosphere, the way it moved me.
A few months ago I reviewed another female singer-songwriter who plays electric guitar and is backed by two male musicians, Eliza Shaddad. The comparisons are many as they both write beautiful songs and perform them with skill and emotion. Are these two women reigniting the torch originally held by the likes of Patti Smith, P J Harvey, Pale Honey, The Breeders, Jenny Lewis, Cat Power, Feist etc. I hope so. For the moment How Are We Ever To Know? is out now and you need this EP in your life. Get it today!
Performance Date: 9 June 2016