Eliza Shaddad has to be the hardest working artist I have ever met. When I walked into the Sunflower Lounge tonight she is giving an interview (this is 90 minutes before she is due on stage). She then take photos of both support acts and tweets her support for them, and while Chris Tye is singing, from her position by the door, she stops it from banging when people are entering the room to stop it disturbing his performance… and within five minutes of her set ending, she is behind her merchandise table meeting, greeting, signing and selling. Now working hard is one thing, but being good is more important some times, being fucking amazing is something else altogether and this is where we find Eliza Shaddad.
First up to begin tonight’s proceedings is Callum Kerrigan, who is actually a decent songwriter and manages to not fall into being just another acoustic singer/songwriter that, let’s face it, are like a plague at the moment (or maybe they always have been). This is pretty obvious when he introduces covers (one by The Kooks), and his songs are miles better. His guitar work treads a fine balance between the standard solid strum and employing interesting rhythms, which really helps keep it interesting. More importantly though, often through the set he stops playing guitar altogether and sings without the accompaniment; that takes courage believe me. My only issue with the performance is the voice Callum has chosen to use to deliver his songs. He can clearly sing but he has ditched his Rugeley accent for something otherworldly like a mixture of Kooks singer Luke Pritchard and Nizlopi artist Luke Concannon. I just don’t get why singers use another person’s voice when their own must be better if it were allowed out. The problem is that the voice immediately sounds artificial or affected, and the performance lacks individuality and honesty. That is my only criticism as his set is full of interestingly quirky songs. Callum Kerrigan’s debut ep is out in a couple of weeks and he has a headline show at the Rainbow shortly to promote it.
Next up is Chris Tye, as if to reinforce the belief that singer songwriters are everywhere, here’s another. However, Chris has to be up there with the best. His ear for stunning but simple melodies backed with continuously moving chord patterns reminded me greatly of Paul Simon’s work throughout the 70’s. After a number of songs I believed that Chris must have climbed into Paul Simon’s attic and leafed through a box of all the songs Paul didn’t use despite them being brilliant. And I don’t mean that in the sense that Chris is an imitation of Paul Simon, not at all, I believe that Chris is upholding a long tradition of songwriting brilliance, that reached a peak in the 1970’s with the likes of Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, James Taylor etc, and doing it in his own style. It is an old fashioned way of writing songs, not many successful artists write this way anymore, but it is beautiful to hear it again. His album ‘The Paper Grenade’ adds a more in depth arrangement to the uncomplicated guitar and vocal of tonight’s proceedings and it is well worth your time: “I Will Be With You” and the title track are devastatingly touching; emotional, but intelligently delivered.
Eliza Shaddad starts her set with the emotional roller-coaster that is “Make It Go Away”; it is an interesting decision, as the song’s beauty lies in an unhurried, melancholy build up normally reserved for the end of a set. But this is not the Shaddad way. She prefers to set the mood by opening quietly and treating everyone to a long delayed crescendo; warming up the audience slowly… toying with perceptions and expectations. The build up is unexpectedly delayed a little as she neglects to turn up her effects pedal all the way, leaving the guitar a little muted for the first few songs, until she realises it is not the sound engineer’s error, but her own causing the lack of noise from her Fender Blues Junior amp. I did wonder whether the output of such a small combo amp would have enough oomph, even in a small venue like the Sunflower Lounge, and wondered when she would need to upgrade to a stack when her venues almost certainly get larger. But fault remedied and the sound balance is just right.
Eliza Shaddad has a very light touch, and like the recorded versions of the tracks performed tonight, she plays electric guitar like an acoustic. Although this works in a studio when doubled up with overdubs, I would have liked to have seen a more attacking style utilised on stage – when I interviewed Eliza recently she stressed that the live sound was loud with lots of fuzz, so I was expecting early P J Harvey or Karen O, what she delivers is more like Suzanne Vega. I guess the issue I have is that the instrument’s full dynamic range is never utilised, and she never seems to let herself go while playing guitar either — it is mostly a restrained, softly strummed right hand on show tonight… but maybe I am just enforcing my expectations of how electric guitar is supposed to be played and she is right to turn such opinions on its head.
If I thought the guitar playing is a little tame, I cannot say the same for Eliza’s vocals, which are a revelation when heard live. The emotion captured on her eps is beautifully raw in a live setting, but the power behind that comes to the fore when the band’s volume rises and her voice matches and surpasses the perfectly suited bass and drums that forms her rhythm section. It reminds me often of Jeff Buckley, where she goes from a whisper to a roar, but wonderfully controlled, soulfully warm and with a hint of gaelic charm.
The small but devoted audience are transfixed throughout the set as Eliza Shaddad leads them through tracks from her 3 eps and even new tracks that are due to appear on her new album. It is thrilling to hear these new songs, and the new album promises to be her best work yet. I can’t wait.
The set is intelligently paced, generally pairing a ballad followed by a more rhythmic track, but the tempo never moves beyond a jog and it is a laid back affair on the whole. “Wars”, with its driving drum track, and “A Good Man” are the exceptions, as they bounce along youthfully.
It is interesting to note that the audience contain a wide demographic: young and old, male and female – it is pretty obvious that Eliza appeals to a lot of different people and given the exposure can build up a healthy following.
My only reservations having now seen her play live, is something she admits herself during one of the many tuning up breaks: her interaction with the audience is barely existent, apart from an overly polite tirade of apologies for having no banter. Her whole stage persona is so English (even thought she is not English), so humble, so down to earth, it is both refreshingly beautiful and frustratingly awkward. As much as I don’t want her to be different, I feel she has to be tougher and harder on stage, by believing in herself more than perhaps she does right now. Believe me, Eliza Shaddad is absolutely the best artist around right now and when she knows that deep in her heart her roar will be heard everywhere.
Review: Alan Neilson