Martha Wainwright - Birmingham Symphony Hall
An unassuming-looking man informs the seated audience of Birmingham's Symphony Hall that Martha's show last night in Nottingham was 'inspiring'. Before we can judge for ourselves, this man does his best Jeff Buckley impression over an EP-length support set that is sometimes inspiring but, more often than not, way too earnest. Although Tom Baxter's voice is undoubtedly impressive, songs like Better and Miracle are standard singer/songwriter fare. It's on Icarus Wings, where brother Charlie's percussion adds an element of drama to a building climax, where he shows true promise away from the drippy ballads. A step up from James Blunt though, that's for sure.
Taking the stage solo, Martha begins her set with I Wish You Were, which strips back the album version to its bare parts: her acoustic strumming and that extraordinary voice. Encompassing everything from hushed drawl to imploring banshee wail, it's the biggest draw tonight and the reason anyone calling themselves a music fan should fork out and see her on tour. However, the songs themselves are compelling enough material, her set lifting mainly from the new album, I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too. Anyone who's heard it will be aware it has a more 'band'-like sound, and so it's no surprise when four blokes - one of whom, bassist Brad Alberta, is Mr Martha Wainwright - join her on stage.
The bitter humour of Bleeding All Over You is an early treat, one that makes up for some technical problems that, four songs in, spoil the climax of Jesus and Mary. Thankfully, it's the only mishap of the evening and Martha handles it gracefully. The maudlin In the Middle of the Night and quiet-loud, drum-propelled Jimi are instances where the musicians really compliment Martha, and yet a three-song solo showcase in the middle - comprising of stunning renditions of Far Away, Tower and This Life - proves that Martha is in her element when she's at her rawest. In fact, although her voice fills Symphony Hall and the full-band bombast adds another dynamic to her sound, the stuffy setting seems to have neutered her to some degree; a 2005 gig at a smaller Birmingham venue, Academy 2, saw her passing weed around the audience and indulging in a lot more playful between-song banter. Although she discusses her kinky boots and gives the context for some of the songs, this time she is largely reserved when she's not performing.
No-one can doubt that, when she is performing, Martha is totally in the zone. After being subjected to more than enough sit-and-strum Katie Melua types, the energised and, dare I say it, sexualised performance Martha puts in is refreshing. Legs wide, sometimes lifted in the air as she straddles her guitar, it is as if she is being pulled by the force of the music and she chooses to just go with it. There are three instances where she ditches the guitar completely, proving her mettle as a vocalist and letting her band members focus on the instrumentation; two French songs, one a lesser-known Edith Piaf song (now that's ballsy!), demonstrate her versatility and expression but it is Stormy Weather, her track from big bro Rufus's Judy Garland shows which is accompanied here by a sole piano rather than a 30-piece orchestra, that steals the show. It's so good that there's an air of 'show-off' about it, and yet Martha's commitment to every word she's singing keeps it sincere. It ends the show in grand style but Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, which came a couple of songs earlier, is still the unflinching drama-folk masterpiece that she is yet to better and is performed here, as ever, with complete gusto. Although this is met with the biggest cheers, it's good to witness Martha in a live arena again where she's refusing to live off past glories and moving forward with new songs. One can only hope married life will not affect future tales of woe, heartbreak and, well, bloody mother fucking assholes.