sun 16/06/2024

Beth Gibbons, Salle Pleyel, Paris review - a triumph of intimacy | reviews, news & interviews

Beth Gibbons, Salle Pleyel, Paris review - a triumph of intimacy

Beth Gibbons, Salle Pleyel, Paris review - a triumph of intimacy

A perfect and mature symbiosis of words and music

Beth Gibbons bares her soul in Paris

Beth Gibbons, once the voice of Portishead, and later a wonderful solo singer and songwriter, hasn’t been on stage for a long while. She makes the most of a paradoxical yet magical mix of being at once fleeting and totally present.

Something of Miles Davis's cool refusal to play for the gallery, often turned away from the audience at the close of each song, as if drawing strength from the back line of her orchestra. This may be one of the keys to her unique appeal. All of this was very much in evidence at her recent Paris show, a spectacle delicately built on brave self-revelation and self-effacing diffidence, with a natural charm that had all the qualities of authentic enchantment.

Introspection was there from the very start, with support act Bill Ryder-Jones once of Liverpool’s The Coral, so shy he could barely put a sentence together, introducing his very touching melancholy songs of love, closeness and loss. He was nervous, but, with low-key humour, wore his stage-fright on his sleeve, accompanied by Evelyn Halls who added minimal strokes of mournful cello and sweet vocal harmonies.

Beth Gibbons dispenses with song introductions and stage banter altogether. In fact she makes a virtue of letting the songs speak, her enunciation always crystal-clear, and with hardly a hint of movement or what's known as projection. Hunched as ever, in tight communion with the microphone, she’s almost singing to herself, and yet it, feels as if she’s confiding in us all: so much more intimate than she would be if she emphasised her deep emotions in a display of theatrical gesture.

The material is mostly drawn from her recently-released album Lives Outgrown, a near-perfect exploration of her inner life, the ravages and challenges of time, exquisitely salvaged from any kind of mawkishness by well-chosen and always evocative lyrics, and tunes that inveigle the listener into a musical universe that reflects a totally original approach to the creation of contemporary song: a raw meditation on inconstancy, in “Lost Changes”, the regret and resignation of “Oceans” with its poetic reference to the menopause, and the heart-warming redemption of “Whispering Love”. The French love it, of course: there’s a kinship with the Gallic tradition of poetic and literary chanson, but it's also quintessentially British - yet another example of an ever-renewing heritage tooted in folk, 20th century classical as well as pop.

Beth Gibbons by Hetti Nabel

She is supported – if that’s the right word, as they are accomplices as well as equals, never just a backing band – by seven wonderful musicians, the ones with whom she recorded the album. The arrangements are sophisticated without ever being precious: a multitude of textures in perfect resonance with the tone of her songs. Not least the funereal mallet work on the drums from James Ford, one of her main collaborators on the album;  reedy colouring from a double-bass clarinet (über-talented Howard Jacobs, who also plays vibraphone, hammer dulcimer, tin whistle, flute and a variety of percussion), providing a suitably rich swathe of sound that complements eerie and unusually pitched backing vocals, and swirling riffs from a violin (Emma Smith) and viola (Richard Jones) that sweep across the often cinematic panorama of th deftly assembled sound. Smith’s violin produces surprising and ghostly weeping sounds on “Whispering Love”, while Jones’s viola enhances the strings’ overall tone with the instrument’s characteristic fuller timbre.

This is music with its very own character, reminiscent of nothing or no-one in particular, unlike Portishead’s references to classic Hollywood soundtrack, Morricone and John Barry. It has clearly grown out of Beth Gibbons’ own aesthetic, her moods and the honesty with which she sings about herself. Her introversion, as any psychologist would be the first to observe, allows her to be in touch with her deepest emotions, never distracted by the defence that extroverted performance makes possible.  Not that the band are in any way held back, or that they share in Gibbons’s extreme diffidence. But they facilitate it, act in a kind of sympathy that elevates the singer-songwriter’s exquisite introversion.

For the two songs, in which some of Gibbons’ s fury is let loose, the band moves into another register, just as expertly as with the more mysterious and sombre material. On “Rewind”, Richard Jones slices the more upbeat rhythm with sudden power-guitar licks laden with distortion, and on “Beyond The Sun”, an explosion of solar energy, in total contrast with the more lunar calm of most of the other songs, guitarist Eoin Rooney grabs some sticks and beats the shit out of a tom-tom, adding to the fire and fury of James Ford’s drumkit and extra percussion from Howard Jacobs.

Beth Gibbons pleases the crowd with two favourites  from Out Of Season (2002) her wonderful album with Rustin Man, and the quintessential Portishead song “Roads” from the first album Dummy (1994). But, most of this extraordinary evening, clearly feeling in the presence of something quite exceptional, the audience is treated to the songs from her scintillating new album, material that establishes Beth Gibbons as one of the most important musical artists of our time.

  •   Beth Gibbons, on tour until 10 June 2024
  • More new music reviews on theartsdesk
A spectacle delicately built on brave self-revelation and self-effacing diffidence


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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