Kathleen Edwards - Manchester Apollo
There’s an unshakeable blackness to the music of Canada’s Kathleen Edwards. Her roughed-up country rock made itself known via debut Failer in 2003 and though her vocals dominate proceedings tonight, it’s the songs and their un-quivering candour that best sell her distinct talents. Here in support of collaborator and friend Bon Iver, she returns to that debut just once, for its blistering ‘title’ track (‘Six O’Clock News’), a tale of the local “failer”, whose desperation sees him take a gun to the streets with fatal consequences. Sung by his pregnant widow, it’s still the epitomy of her glorious, country-noir approach.
If that first album was beautifully monochrome, a chilly collection of vignettes whose small town focus cast light on the backstreets in the grandest tradition – think the unforgiving framing of The Last Picture Show set to music - subsequent works have been more fully realised. Tonight she plays with just two backing musicians. After the increasingly lush arrangements of subsequent albums, it’s a thrill to hear her songs unadorned. She lays down a marker from the off: arriving on stage cloaked in a plaid workshirt, she apologises for the “Canadian tuxedo…but it’s fucking freezing in here.” With the Apollo all seated tonight, options for generating communal heat are limited, a slightly weightier challenge for the support act.
Edwards’ fourth album Voyageur arrives in January. Coming four years after her last outing, the expansive Asking For Flowers, it’s one for the diary, but her short set offers little insight. With only a couple of songs premiered tonight, it will no doubt receive more attention when she returns with full band in February. This evening is about mood and atmosphere, and it’s the tried and true that heat the arteries if not the icy hall. ‘Asking For Flowers’ is ghostly and delicate, even more so in this sparse form, but you can’t miss the acid reflection on love in the dumpster at its weary heart: “My life is like a picture, left out in the sun too long…” ‘Goodnight, California’, the epic heart-broken centrepiece of that last album, is a brave opener when only a handful of the crowd know who you are, but it fills the unwelcoming space with stately atmospherics, Edwards moving from guitar to violin and back again. This deft trio challenge the headliner’s eight piece backing band for effect versus numbers. And beneath it all, the voice, exposed right at the front of the mix and reaching out to the rear of the circle, a rich, almost gravely instrument.
By the time she closes, a disquieting version of The Flaming Lips’ meditation of love and death (this evening’s theme: Very Few Laughs) ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ dispatched, the Apollo has sat up even if it hasn’t warmed up. With a steely edge that eludes some of her contemporaries, there remains something deliciously contrary about Kathleen Edwards. The whole alt.country/Americana scene at times seems fit to burst, a brewski away from popping its shirt buttons, but Edwards is still an enigma at its dark heart.