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Weekend Intermission – Live Review: Weyes Blood and Sam Burton, O2 Ritz, Manchester, 13th February

Weekend Intermission is our regular feature where we look at an artist or band not from the Nordic countries, just to mix things up a bit. The second feature at this time is on a Tuesday on account of Sam Burton and Weyes Blood having a Monday slot in Manchester.

Sam Burton. He sounds like he might live just up the road, but he’s actually from near Salt Lake City via Los Angeles. He’s just signed to Partisan Records and a new album ‘Dear Departed’ will be released later this year. It was produced by Jonathan Wilson (who’s worked with Angel Olsen, Father John Misty and Margo Price) at his Topanga Canyon studio with some of the best studio players in LA. (And they are good, think of all those Yacht Rock sounds their predecessors produced).

His 2020 debut, ‘I Can Go With You’ met with critical acclaim, he’s been dubbed ‘pure Laurel Canyon AM Gold’ and he’s just finished a three week residency at a top LA ‘dive bar’.

He has a full, silky, sonorous, tenor voice (think Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison or Harry Nilsson – who incidentally influenced Weyes Blood) a sort of male equivalent of tonight’s top of the bill’s alto, pens and sings sincere, serious ballads from the heart and with a keyboard player and female vocalist with a very sweet voice backing him, everything was set up for a great set, even if he was wearing a naff lumberjack shirt.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men don’t always quite work out. The problem was that a sweaty, sold out, all standing O2 Ritz isn’t the ideal venue for Sam’s songs. I dare say that any amount of supper clubs or dive bars in LA’s trendiest suburb, or any roadhouse west of Denver for that matter, would suit him perfectly. A converted dance hall on Whitworth Street in Rainy City, packed to the gills, is a different matter.

No matter how good your songs are, to win a northern England audience over you have to talk to them, engage in a bit of banter, inform them how delighted you are to be here in Grimsby or wherever, tell a joke about the weather here, and, if you’re American, insult Donald Trump. They’ll be eating out of your hand in no time.

Sam patently didn’t do that. In fact it was only after the backing singer (I didn’t catch her name, I thought I heard ‘Appletree’??) had finished her excellent solo piece, about seven songs in, that he introduced her and the keyboard man.

And she got such a reception from the audience that she immediately made a point of introducing and applauding him, doubtless conscious that she’d just stolen the show.

She did that partly by singing a song that was much more upbeat than most of Sam’s material. His really good work is almost exclusively in the vocal; you won’t find much flamboyance on the guitar and each song is relentless. Most of them don’t carry a bridge; they grind their way towards their conclusion, mainly morosely, in a variety of minor keys. Great if you live in LA and never know from one minute to the next if you’re going to be a drive by shooting victim on your way home. But not in a foreign country.

And the problem there is that without variety he cannot hold the audience’s attention for any length of time. I wondered how long it would be before the mwah-mwah hello darling luvvies from Chorlton Green or West Didsbury who were stood next to me launched into a hilarious dinner party chat and joke routine as if Sam, or anyone else for that matter, wasn’t in the room. It wasn’t long and the hilarity lasted the remainder of the set. I suspect the same was going down around the entire venue.

When Sam left the stage he looked downcast and despondent and I’m sure Manchester will quickly be removed from his solo tour ‘must visit’ list in perpetuity, if it was ever on it in the first place. He’ll be glad to know that the End of the Road Festival he plays in August is about as far from Manchester as it’s possible to get without walking into the sea.

And all this is a shame because what I picked out of his lyrics was as impressive as his voice while one song in particular, ‘Maria’, “a song of brief redemption” as he says, definitely did resonate with me. I just wished I could have been in that Glendale Boulevard dive bar where I’m certain I could have appreciated him far better.

Live performance of ‘Maria’ from Paris, February 2023

One benefit of touring with Weyes Blood on her In Holy Flux shindig for Sam will be that he will surely learn much from her ability to gel with an audience. Natalie Mering is the Queen of Cool, make no mistake. And on the night she didn’t even tell one of her trademark jokes. Her presence alone was enough to enrapture the audience.

She was late on stage while her little cartoon character flickered away pulling faces on the screen behind (I’ve no idea what that’s about, I’m sure someone will tell me).

Perhaps she was still on LA time. Or hung over from a weekend in Dublin, on the Guinness.

When she did arrive it might have been the Second Coming as she slipped onto the stage in a white full length and almost see-through dress, such was the reception.

Support came from a guitar/keys guy (who plays excellent slide); bass; drums; and another keyboard player who was tucked away so far in the corner that I thought he was the sound man. (And I suspect he was playing a mellotron at times, a little bonus). Unusually all four provided vocal backing, as an ad-hoc choir.

The stage was bedecked with candles; giving it almost a living room feel (can you imagine her singing in your living room? I’m having palpitations just thinking about it), and some even found their way onto the merch stand.

She looks taller on stage than she is and cuts a commanding figure even with great economy of movement. When she does her little dances there’s so little – but exceptionally graceful – movement that it’s as if her Strictly dancing partner had suddenly decamped to the bar leaving her in limbo.

I don’t want to say too much about Weyes Blood (I could easily do that) as I was there for Sam’s performance so I’ll make some general observations and point out the highlights of the highlights so to speak. Firstly, her voice has to be heard, live, to be believed. It is quiet extraordinary, in both the higher and lower ranges, supremely lush and it seems to ooze effortlessly out of her. When she soars it’s heavenly.

Most of her work broadly falls into the ‘Chamber Pop’ category, a sort of structured symphonic pop but she can mix it up, as with show closer ‘Everyday’, on which she played piano for the first time on the evening and which falls somewhere between mid-life Beatles and Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’.

Melody runs through her songs like Blackpool through rock.

She can generate both atmosphere and emotion at the drop of a hat and out of nothing, the mark of a truly great artist.

She has her little tricks such as the bright red illuminating heart on her chest in ‘Hearts Aglow’, turned on and off (and reprising later) to perfection.

For ‘God turn me into a flower’ (a song too beautiful for words, so I won’t even try) a video was shown (which ran perfectly in unison with the song, that’s not easy to co-ordinate exactly), one made by a YouTube ‘documentarian’ as she put it, called Adam Curtis.

You don’t have to read much about Mr Curtis to know where his politics lie and they may or not be yours. A full length documentary of his wouldn’t be my cup of tea but the cuts shown, which I suspect were from his ‘Hypernormalisation’ film and consisting mainly of various depictions of human distress, melded perfectly with the song. It would be appropriate to describe it as performance art.

The ‘highlight of highlights’ though had to be ‘Movies’, which has become her signature song since its release on the ‘Titanic Rising’ album.

I’ve been fortunate enough after (like everyone else) two years of abstinence, to see some magnificent performances of songs in the last few months, such as Angel Olsen’s ‘Lark’ and Nightwish’s ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ et al, but ‘Movies’ was something else again. Simply fabulous.

A darkened stage was illuminated only by that white dress of the central character, which shimmered in a way reminiscent of actresses in the old silent movies as she held centre court, joined by the now illuminated band in an eruption of musicality after the violin bridge (which unfortunately wasn’t played by a live violin, my only regret) and via the percussive transition in the 3/4 beat of a waltz that could be right out of ‘That’s Entertainment.’.

The song has several possible meanings, the most popular being her teenage rejection of the ‘lie’ sold by Hollywood as to what real life is all about. That she should have chosen to portray it in this way, in the manner of a Hollywood blockbuster, rising to an almighty crescendo, is quite remarkable.

I don’t think I’ve ever been in the presence of 1,500 people who were so captivated, mesmerised even, by a performance of a single song and the rapturous applause must have gone on for the best part of a minute. Breathtaking would be no exaggeration.

Try to imagine this KEXP live performance video to the power of 10 and you still won’t be close.

You often hear artists compared to Kate Bush, often because they just sound like her. Weyes Blood doesn’t (if I was to compare her vocally it would be with Karen Carpenter and you’d never believe she once fronted a metal band). But that she has the same degree of talent is indisputable.

And yet this sophisticated and ultra talented young lady doesn’t even get Grammy nominations?

Something is rotten, Horatio, in the States of United.

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