Aldous Harding + H Hawkline @ 02 Institute, 22nd November 2017

The beguiling Aldous Harding arrives in Birmingham, greeted with a sell out room, perched at the top of the 02 Institute. As 2017 draws towards its conclusion, thoughts turn towards recognising those artists that have pushed themselves into the consciousness of music lovers the world over.

Harding must be in jubilant mood ahead of tonight’s performance. Just a few days earlier, she was recognised back in her homeland of New Zealand, picking up two awards at the annual Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards, securing ‘Breakthrough Artist of the Year’ and ‘Best Alternative Artist’. In addition to this, the esteemed Rough Trade has just named ‘Party’ as its choice for album of the year. Something tells me that this is the last time we will be permitted to see Harding in such intimate surroundings.

First to the stage is H. Hawkline, aka, Huw Evans. Before the music starts, Hawkline makes a polite request for the house lights to be tweaked just slightly. Hawkline’s appeal is communicated as if he’s addressing some omnipotent presence. There is no change to the lighting and no response from whomever’s responsibility that is. Hawkline simply shrugs his shoulders and proceeds with the show. There is something delightfully comical about these first few awkward moments of Hawkline’s set. Something that becomes apparent as the show continues is that Hawkline is delightfully funny, for starter’s, he is cloaked in his sister’s silk dressing gown. Later, he’ll confess that the floral gown is now just a gimmick, but its origins came from the depressive state in which he found himself, following the break-up of a relationship.

Hawkline is performing without backing, evidently an accomplished guitarist, his hands leap around the neck of his guitar without any sign of hesitation. ‘Means That Much’ is taken from 2017s release, ‘I Romanticize’; and is a delightful concoction of swirling melodies and is lyrically rich. Many of the songs are centred around the demise of said relationship, though bleak in subject matter, they are filled with wit and are often jaunty in tone.

The emotionally charged cover of Alex Dingley’s, ‘Lovely Life to Lead’ flaws much of the room, as Hawkline relinquishes his guitar in favour of the piano, imploring the room to familiarise themselves with Dingley’s work, if they have not already done so. ‘Last Thing On Your Mind’ brings Hawkline’s set to a close. The Birmingham audience has been exceptional in their attentiveness, a theme that continues as the last notes of Hawkline’s set ring out.

Aldous Harding emerges from the side of the tiny stage, the normally exclusive white attire that informs her stage appearance is temporarily threatened by presence of a black coat. Harding takes her seat, guitar in hand and tentatively commences with the opening fingerpicking of ‘Swell Does the Skull’. The room is transfixed, and will continue to be so until the culmination of her mesmerising set. Harding’s stage performance is captivating, her airy vocal mingles amongst the audience, at times reminiscent of Edith Piaf. Much has been made of Harding’s arresting physicality whilst she performs. Her facial expressions can sometimes appear so at odds with the sounds that she is making, all of which, brings an intensity from which you cannot avert your gaze.

The elegance of Harding’s performance is momentarily under threat from an obscenely loud door, ridiculously situated just feet from whence the singer-songwriter exquisitely contends with the constant intrusion. Harding’s ranks are bolstered with the arrival of Jared Samuel, aka, Invisible Familiars, and the familiar face of H. Hawkline to the stage for ‘I’m So Sorry’.

Harding’s output to date, extends to her 2015 self-titled debut, and this year’s ‘Party’; the latter, unsurprisingly, dominating tonight’s setlist. With ‘Elation’; Harding delivers a transcendental vocal performance that provokes a rapturous applause from the ever attentive audience. ‘Imaging My Man’ is welcomed as a clear favourite, followed soon after by ‘Party’, ‘Living the Classics’ and the wonderfully titled, ‘What if Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming’. This terrifying contemplation is accompanied by a hypnotic piano loop that draws the listener in, posing the question, before concluding with no further cogitation on the subject. ‘The World Is Looking For You’ is the last song of the set, before Harding returns for an encore that rewards the audience for their commitment with the chance to hear a new song called ‘Pilot’.

This evening, Harding delivered a truly alternative performance in every sense of the word. A unique voice, a unique perspective, filled with a beauty and terror that is utterly engaging.

Reviewer: Chris Curtis

Photographer: Marc Osborne

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