Joan as Police Woman - The Glee Club, Birmingham
A trip to Birmingham's Glee Club always feels like a pat on the back, a reward for enduring gigs all year round at venues that don't treat their customers like long-time friends. It makes that reward a whole lot sweeter then, when the main act's support turns out to be someone you'd fork out to see headline. The irrepressible Peggy Sue may have had their '...and the Pirates' moniker walk the plank, and it's a damn shame that the majors won't take a chance and invest so we can hear a full album, but this commitment to their quirky ditties lends tonight's half-hour supporting slot a defiant air. Imbuing their wordy storytelling, a la Regina Spektor, with a folkier edge than before, Katy Klaw and Rosa Rex flesh out their sound with a new boy on drums. Nevertheless, despite the girl's own flirtations with different percussion (and even an accordion at one point), their sound remains steered by lo-fi guitar and their soulful harmonies. Finishing with Matilda, it's clear that the girls have won over everyone in attendance, further evidenced by their EPs disappearing in a flash - now, if only they could sign a record deal instead of manning the merch desk...
Almost stumbling upon the stage as if she didn't realise she was playing a show this eve, airs and graces completely non-existent, Joan as Police Woman - tonight in the shape of the lady herself, Ms Joan Wasser, and multi-instrumentalist comrade Timo Ellis - immediately launch into a song 'dedicated to Freddie Mercury'. Swapping stage-left keyboard for centre-stage guitar, Ellis remaining on his own guitar, Wasser follows this with a song 'performed but not written by' (her words, glint in eye) Britney Spears. Track three is a down-and-dirty rock 'n' roll salute to Mr Iggy Pop - 'he's crazy' apparently. Anyone who wasn't aware, pre-gig, of the cover versions that make up the tour's stop-gap album, aptly-titled Cover, well... they are now. To sate the wishes of dedicated fans, tonight peppers in a selection of songs from her acclaimed albums Real Life and To Survive; so we have the groovy soul stride of Save Me, a delicate Feed the Light (where should-be-impossible high notes replace the climax's absent strings) and a crowd-pleasing rendition of gorgeous The Ride. Make no mistake though, this show sticks stubbornly to the new (or old, depending on how you look at it) material - and, as someone who generally tries to avoid gigs that overlook the back catalogue, I'm as surprised as anyone could be that I had an absolutely slammin' time.
Of course, the old 'she could be singing the phone book...' adage could not be better applied - on record, Joan's voice is a wonder but, at the risk of cheesy cliche, it really does soar in a live setting. Yup. Like a bird, godammit. It is this bird's versatility - as well as the choice of songs - that save this so called 'Interpretation Domination' from being a drawn-out Live Lounge or X Factor episode. It takes a remarkable talent to muster more sexpot sauce than Britney ever could on the aforementioned take on Overprotected, which transforms Max Martin power pop into femme-rock battle cry, and then wrestle with the highs and lows of a stripped-back version of Hendrix's Fire. It helps that Wasser is an unexpectedly charismatic show-woman; in a garish lamé dress over blue leggings and cowboy boots, at one point she suggests that herself and a leopard printed Ellis are transforming into the Mighty Boosh, evoking belly laughs from the quiet-as-a-mouse Glee crowd. With her uncanny similarity to Mr Fielding - a sexy version though, all big bushy hair and Roman profile - it's all I can take to concentrate on anything but, so I'm glad when she proceeds to treat us to a couple of new originals, the hushed yet fraught Flash and the quite confident Nervous, which could trick its misnomer title by being that first radio hit she really deserves.
As stated though, this is pretty much a classy, live mixtape of her interpretations, this idea lent some authenticity by Joan's pet 'Armetis', a machine that accompanies her and Ellis's instrumentation by playing backing tracks housed on cassette tapes. This decidedly retro move - you can even hear the old-skool fuzz of the winding tape during pauses - helps flesh out a couple of the more unusual covers, a rendition of She Watch Channel Zero by Joan's much-loved Public Enemy and a frankly class take on T.I.'s Whatever You Like. It contrasts brilliantly with her sultry reinvention of Bowie's Sweet Thing, while proving her fearlessness in embracing the opposite poles of modern hip-hop and classic rock. In fact, tonight's show has an energy around it that makes you forget Joan is perhaps most recognised for her album's soulful ballads. After a breathless and handclap-heavy Sacred Trickster (thank you, Kim Gordon!), it's this side that gets an encore showing in the form of new song The Human Condition, a lovely meditation that suggests the human race are actually, y'know, alright. There's time for one more after this, and the romantic swoon to much of Joan's music gets an airing when she dedicates an acoustic piano version of slowie Start of My Heart to front-row 'Neil and Samantha', celebrating their anniversary and surely weeping joyful tears into each other's shoulders as Joan sings her heart out one last time. It's showtime for both Joan and Ellis - sterling support! - but, with tonight's multi-faceted display and the promise of new material, I can safely say I'm looking forward to a repeat crime. Handcuffs a-ready, Joan.