It was quite a night to head up to Snape on the wild side of Suffolk for the premiere of Gwyneth Herbert’s sea-inspired new song cycle. The heavens seemed to be hurling buckets of water in rapid succession at the windscreen, making the A12 in the rush hour even more of a challenge than usual.
In the 30 seconds it took to dart from the car to the dry haven of the Britten Studio foyer, some of us had good reason to consider returning our waterproofs to their manufacturer with a stinging reference to the Trade Descriptions Act. Out on the salt marsh, curtains of rain continued to blow in from the North Sea. Autumn had arrived with a wet fanfare. Could Herbert’s experimental piece – the fruit of a six-month Aldeburgh Residency – possibly live up to such an appropriately elemental setting?
Yes, indeed it could. First, however, she sharpened our appetites with a set based mainly on songs from her most recent album, All the Ghosts, setting off at a cracking pace in statement heals and polkadots. “So Worn Out” was an instant showcase for one of the most fascinating, multi-textured female voices on the scene. Herbert can veer from smoky blues to a keening falsetto in a single phrase – a stiff challenge for the dextrous sound engineer, on his mettle throughout the evening. One minute, she has the sweet, clear timbre of the innocent folk singer. The next, she’s growling Grace Slick-style with the throaty rasp of a leather-lunged survivor. She’s a vocal chameleon, and it suits the rich imagery of songs that tell eccentric, sad, joyful and vibrant stories of life in London town that ring with authenticity.
Herbert’s virtuosity, and her eclectic taste in obscure instruments, asks a lot of her band: guitarist Al Cherry, Dave Price on a multitude of percussion, and Steve Holness on the double bass. And they did her proud through a roller-coaster repertoire, from the jaunty ode to a quaint boyfriend (“My Narrow Man”) to the melancholy torch-song “Some Days I Forget”, as close to an English chanson as you will find. “My Mini and Me” rang bells with anyone who finally has to say farewell to their first car, and “Annie’s Yellow Bag” struck a bittersweet blow for creative individuality. Sung live, “Put Your Mouth Where Your Money Is” came across like a gallows march for the critics, and despite Herbert’s disarmingly cheery wink, had some of us shifting uneasily in our seats.
But for me, the most affecting moment in the first half was the detour she made via a song from the score Herbert was commissioned to write for a screening of the Marion Davies silent film The Patsy. Even out of context, “Not the Sort of Girl” was an exquisite portrait of a whimsical creature, brought to life by Herbert’s plain, restrained vocal work.
That gift for conjuring characters in the space between the stage and the audience became even more apparent after the interval. For the eagerly awaited second set, Herbert and her band were joined by writer Heidi James and idiosyncratic folk trio The Rubber Wellies for a piece described as “An exploration of the sea”. Weaving the spoken word with Herbert’s evocative lyrics and audio tracks, the enlarged group proceeded to paint an aural seascape, populated by figures who sprang readily to life in the mind’s eye.
Herbert explained how she’d been inspired by her walks on the Aldeburgh shingle, by random conversations and encounters, to create a song cycle that roams far and wide for its references. In her pungent lyrics and engaging melodies, tavern drinkers rub shoulders with the redoubtable Fishguard women who repelled the invaders at the end of the 18th century; a captain thinks longingly of home; the brilliantly-sketched Miss Wittering – my favourite – sighs her way around the decaying gentility of her seaside hotel. And all are linked via Heidi James’s absorbing tale of the beachcomber, obsessively cataloguing her finds and sorting them in the shack, her “museum”. You waited agog to find out what the next list of detritus would contain.
The audience was enthralled. This was a mesmerising set, peppered with moments of drama, that found its way to the heart of our intense, ambivalent relationship with the seaside. There was, for example, a minute of eerie magic as Herbert, who had disappeared from sight, hypnotically rolling pebbles across the stretched hide of a drum to replicate the ebb and flow of the sea, reappeared at the back of the auditorium, her siren voice floating unaccompanied down to the front row.
As a subject, the sea plays to all Herbert’s strengths as a songwriter, and she has responded in kind with laments and shanties to stir the heart. Any quibbles are minor – a cluttered stage, which sometimes prevented her from moving fluidly from mic to piano, for example, and the lack of an imaginative lighting plot that would have heightened the drama – and will surely be resolved as the piece evolves from being a freshly minted work in progress.
This is only the beginning for Gwyneth Herbert’s sea song cycle, which surely has an exciting future in live performance and – please, Mr Producer – a good recording.