“You guys are quiet,” Martha Wainwright told the audience sitting in the Mareel auditorium midway through her set on Wednesday night. “I’m gonna assume it’s cause you’re mesmerised,” she added with a wry smile. She may have been on to something.
The singer-songwriter is hard to properly classify without simply stating that she is a tour de force on stage, with an immensely powerful vocal and the songs – from quite a few different albums now – to show it off superbly.
There was no emotion she couldn’t convey through her voice. An adept guitarist too, with a fondness for unusual tunings which lend a new complexity to the harmonies at play. And throughout it all was her witty, coarse and straight-talking personality that toyed with the crowd.
There were two support acts beforehand – both intriguing. The singer Jenny Sturgeon was first on alongside guitarist Jonny Hardie. Jenny, originally from Aberdeenshire, has only recently become a resident of the isles, and this was her first time on a Shetland stage. It almost certainly won’t be the last.
With an atmospheric harmonium droning underneath, Jenny’s songs reflected her deep interest in the environment, such as the evocative Seabird. Combining a very traditional voice with this ecological awareness proved a success.
Next up were the Canadian exports Bernice, who, without a doubt, offered something we don’t see much of here in these parts. Best summed up as electronic R&B with a nod to the experimental, hazy synths from all directions surrounded Robin Dann’s vocals, which themselves recalled the likes of indie ace Julia Holter in their way of being airy but moody, with melodies which moved in unexpected ways.
Like the support preceding them, their songs were inspired by particular places, and environmental themes such as in Don’t Wanna Be European, off their latest release. A cover of Joni Mitchell’s early song The Dawntreader was another highlight, with the entire half-hour set being something remarkable.
Martha Wainwright comes from a formidable family of musicians, including brother Rufus and her mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, as well as her father, Loudon Wainwright III, who himself gigged in the isles over a decade ago. Not easy then, to make your name for yourself, but Martha has clearly done this with aplomb. Not easy also to put such a distinctive mark on every song, whether one of her own or someone else’s.
Opening with one of her mother’s songs, I Am A Diamond, was a sweet way to begin, before she fired into cuts from her latest record, Goodnight City, as well ones off older albums. She varied between solo acoustic and being assisted by members of Bernice, now in more traditional and less electronic territory.
Of course, folk music in all its shades thrives off of delving deep into personal matters, ‘baring your soul’ as the cliche goes. Martha’s music contains all kinds of reflections. ‘My heart was made for bleeding all over you,’ she sings in a song off her amusingly titled album I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too. It’s always better when songwriters don’t beat around the bush when it comes to addressing life’s conflicts, something she knows well.
Older songs like Ball and Chain and Factory took things in a more alluring and rockier direction, while Window, Franci and Francis were a touching trio of songs written for her young sons, the latter by her brother.
Finishing the night on a softer note, putting the guitar down with the Leonard Cohen cover Chelsea Hotel No.2, Martha Wainwright had been both intimate and intense. But above all she had been mesmerising.
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