“Dragonflies”: a number from Eddi Reader’s most recent album Love is the Way
If you think there’s a more abundantly gifted British female singer than Eddi Reader gigging and recording today, please tell me who she is. The range of ‘voices’ and styles that Reader embraced during a hugely appreciated two-hour+ set, part of this year’s Snape Proms season at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, was extraordinary. She bucked convention at every turn, barely tolerating the notion of an interval, and dismissing the ritual of the encore completely because she – rightly – would rather fit in a couple of extra songs for her and the audience’s pleasure.
The maverick qualities that must make Reader a music marketeer’s nightmare were on show in abundance as she veered from pop to folk to Burns to Piaf and Doris Day, supported by an equally versatile band that included drummer Roy Dodds, Alan Kelly on the accordian, writing partner and guitarist Boo Hewerdine, and life partner and ukelele virtuoso John Douglas.
The recent album Love is the Way formed the backbone of the evening, interwoven with older work and several of Reader’s unforgettable interpretations of Robert Burns poems. She sprung a surprise at virtually every turn as she peppered the playlist with anecdotes and explanations, setting the scene for each number with an almost throw-away nonchalance that belied the intensity and commitment of her vocal delivery. Old favourites like “Simple Soul” – inspired, she pointed out with grim humour, by Reader’s experience of living with an alcoholic – and “What You Do With What You’ve Got” – with the input of guest artist and pianist Thomas Dolby – complemented the clarity and beauty of new work: “Silent Bells”, the delightful, poignant “Dandelion”, the ode to “New York City” and a delicious left-field interpretation of the Cahn/Styne standard “It’s Magic”, which Reader delivered as her late mother Jean, evoking the volatile atmosphere of a Glasgow tenement party with the diffident star turn at its centre.
Tale followed tale. So vividly does Reader paint scenes that the well-oiled Brenda sprang to life in front of us. Memorably vocal during a gig back home in Irvine with her “Sing ‘Perfect’, Eddi” during the sublime Burns poem “Aye Waukin-O”, Brenda was saved from a couple of fast-approaching plods and a few hours in the cooler when Reader got her up on stage for the chorus, and for her trouble was rewarded with a request to sign Brenda’s bra. Less prosaically, we were also treated to stories of Burns’ lusty escapades ahead of a haunting “Ae Fond Kiss”.
Reader herself is a fascinating, even disconcerting presence on stage. Occasionally restless, picking up and replacing her guitar as if undecided quite what she’s going to do next, she describes the harmonies with her hands as she sings, utterly committed to the honesty of the sound she is making.
Like Brenda, we got our “Perfect”, the Fairground Attraction hit that first brought Eddi Reader’s voice to a wide public attention back in 1989. Reader hung on to her guitar and delivered a swinging, jubilant acoustic version to close the first half. For me, though, the highlight in an evening of brilliance was a sudden, completely unexpected, a capella “La Vie en Rose” which hushed the hall.
The only thing missing – and you can’t have everything, even in a set of this quality – was her epic take on Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity”. If you also missed it, here’s a reminder of Eddi Reader, the consummate torch-singer: