The Borderline is everything a gig venue should be; a basement holding just a few hundred people and dimly lit, it guarantees to generate a buzz from the moment you arrive and so it proved for the launch of Ruth Theodore's latest album Cactacus.
Opening the evening was Alejandra Ribera, http://alejandraribera.com/ from Canada, but truly a world musician who has travelled in, and drawn inspiration from, many countries. Accompanied on the night by a second guitar and double bass she delivered a good set of songs around relationships, at a very personal level conveying both strength and normal human vulnerabilities. There is certainly power in her pleasantly deep, slightly husky, voice but it is only used to add emphasis when needed, rather than for the sake of it.
Unfortunately a large element of the audience decided not to listen but carry on talking instead to a level where it became noticeable, and quite frankly disrespectful, to her and this showed in her performance as she was clearly not enjoying the experience. However, her response was both bold and brave and worked perfectly.
Deciding that only the front of the crowd was paying her any attention she unplugged, got of the stage and - literally - played a floor spot. Discovering that there's a difference between not being able to hear and choosing not to listen, the rest of the audience fell silence. The effect on Alejandra was immediate as she relaxed and was able show her true ability, with a song full of life and energy. The ovation at the end was thoroughly deserved.
Her next UK performance is on November 4th at The Green Note in London, for which I've already booked a ticket.
So after a short break it was on to the main event of the evening and the official launch of Cactacus, Ruth Theodore's fourth full album. For this Ruth crossed the Atlantic and several of the songs did have that American sound to them, whilst remaining firmly ensconced in Hackney.
The set opened with Buffalo, a song about searching for stability that doesn't quite materialise, that has an almost bluegrass feel to it. It was the ideal song to get the audience moving along and we knew we were in for a good evening.
Many of Ruth's songs reflect a transience in life, perhaps reflecting her early struggles, but the listener is never quite sure if permanence is the desired outcome.
Everything Is Temporary is the final track on the album, but played earlier in the set on the evening, and manages to link romance to currency markets. The analogy isn't that far off, of course. There are booms and busts and you risk losing everything. This is a beautiful slower tempo song perfectly suited to Ruth's husky voice with that feeling of vulnerability behind the streetwise mask.
"but investment is a risky thing when you're not sure what you're worth
especially if you do business like me and feed all your chips to the birds "
At a very young age Ruth was told, following an accident, that she would not be able to sing or play the guitar. It didn't stop her but rather meant she could make up the rules as she went along without formal training. That means, happily for us, that she isn't going to be constrained by anything other than her own imagination.
Man of the Land sounded, according to my notes from the evening, like a novelty song on first listening, with a wide range of instruments including duck whistles and bells and has a jazz feel. Behind this, though, the thoughtful lyrics tell the story of Man's progress through time, only to realise that we are still earthbound.
The evening was full of these twists and turns in genre and the same applies to her singing style. There are tuneful ballads but also poetry set to music and spoken as much as sung. Mention must also be made of her six piece backing band who gave an excellent, tight performance and played with real gusto.
There are only so many hours in a day and only so many gigs we can get to. We'd really like to expand our national coverage of the live scene as it remains the life blood of music.
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