Natalie Prass - Manchester Deaf Institute
Natalie Prass collars her guitarist and co-producer Trey Pollard, whose tricks-y soloing helps lift her choice cover of Ryan Adam's 'Winding Wheel': "Trey? How'd you get so good? How come you’re just so darned good? Huh?" He fumbles, embarrassed. "Practice..?" Prass isn't convinced: "Practice, huh? Practice and cheese, maybe..." He grins, shrugs. Maybe.
Thus the scene is set for Prass's Manchester debut, one of a handful of UK dates in support of the solo album she released back in January on Matthew E. White's Spacebomb label. Prass's practiced ease with a crowd belies her (relative) inexperience as a solo performer. From the off, she assumes control, stepping out amidst warm applause, mock-frowning across the rammed room. "Manchester…" she admonishes, and we're away. If her between song ramblings weren't so enlivening and funny, you’d dismiss her in the worst possible way: kooky.
And if her performance art wasn't so advanced, you'd frame her as a capable tribute act. But she's no kook and she's certainly no mimic. Tonight, Prass vaults the kind of choices that would unseat most pretenders. Take her choice of covers, for example. She brings back support act Chanele McGuiness for a tender run through of 'Walk On By': an X Factor own goal for most but quietly heroic here. For her sole encore, she clips through 'You Keep Me Hangin' On', a song 'too big' for anyone (including, on occasion, The Supremes), but she takes it somewhere a league away from showy, breathless karaoke, submitting to its racing pummel, performing much of it to the floor, the rear of the stage, anywhere but the back row.
But she gives the game away big style with her impassioned reworking of Janet Jackson's 'Any Time, Any Place'. Her album might buzz with a beguiling Laurel Canyon vibe, a dreamy cadence you’d find in mid-70s Joni Mitchell, and too many commentators have lazily plumped for labelling of the most awkwardly trad sort ('soul-country' – ugh), but Prass is a pop fan and a pop star first and foremost and her onstage tribute to Debbie Gibson - "I love her. You all know her, right..?" - proves it's pop she loves and lives. And the glee with which she dispatches the Jackson song fires ahead of much of her own material, even. One of the finest songs ever about sneakily shagging in a side street, add it now to the 'Better Than The Original' list. (Completists note: previous and subsequent shows feature Prass's take on Anita Baker's 'Caught Up In The Rapture', so, you know, be prepared to commit.)
But it's her own stuff that's responsible for the sold-out notices and tonight, her stout three piece backing band open it out, bend it this way and that. Those ornate Spacebomb arrangements were never going to make it out onto the road in their original format, so Prass strips them right back. Much of this tour has seen her switch between keyboards and guitar but for this run of dates everything is super trim: no keyboards, just guitar, bass and drums (with Prass on occasional guitar.) Borne out of necessity or just a genius move, who cares? 'My Baby Don’t Understand Me', originally lifted by strings and brass, gains space and, with it, heft. 'Bird of Prey', you suspect, would sing if played on a cement mixer.
The tenderest moments on record ('Christy'; 'It Is You') still a rapt crowd. The grooves ('Why Don’t You Believe In Me?') just groove that much harder. There's a twisted logic to how Prass subverts her own material and where it really shouldn’t bloom, it stretches and expands in ways you couldn’t possibly have predicted. Somewhere within that tiny frame, deep within that sweet chirrup of a voice – a voice a lesser artist would have abused with de facto balladry and Disney-esque theatricals – exists a superstar-in-waiting; a song writer with a thrilling and distinct vison; a performer whose Andy Pandy get-up ("They're not really pyjamas, Manchester. At least I don't think they are…") does little tonight to quell the spell she casts. Utterly. Fucking. Brilliant.