“Black But Comely”: a song of doomed, elemental passion
Baby Dee had already shambled on stage and struck up the first chords of a song about slugs in Shoreditch Church, late on Saturday night, before the audience became fully aware of her presence and let out a welcoming cheer. She turned and smiled over her shoulder with a knowing, ‘this is me, folks’ shrug and launched into one of her characteristically poetic, impressionistic lyrics, accompanied by her own sublime piano playing, sending the notes soaring up into the lofty shadows of the church ceiling.
Wrapped in a capacious coat with dalmatian spotted leggings underneath and something that resembled nothing so much as a red tea cosy on top, she cut a singular dash. Dee could have been an eccentric aunt who had simply wandered in from Shoreditch High Street, put down her shopping and absent-mindedly started tinkling the ivories.
Appearances are deceptive. This avant-garde transexual creator and singer of art songs – a one-time Coney Island performance artist and organist for a Catholic church in the Bronx – might indeed be eccentric. But there is nothing chaotic about her musicianship – she is a classically trained pianist and harpist – or the extraordinary instrument that is her voice: a resonant tenor that occasionally rises in a counter screech or descends into a filthy, cackling vibrato rasp.
Songs about insects feature large in her repertoire – the evening would end with a paean to bees – but the slugs, it transpired, were just the hors d’oeuvre to the main feast: a set largely based on Baby Dee’s mesmerising album, A Book of Songs for Anne Marie, for which she was joined by the assuredly ethereal strings of the Elysian Quartet, an oboist, and a guest cellist whose name, alas, I couldn’t catch because Dee’s spasmodic inter-song links were so sotto voce that the sound system didn’t pick them up.
The concert (a Frieze Music event), played out in front of the alter against a backdrop of flickering candles and beneath strings of fairy lights, had a hypnotic beauty.
Dee’s free-ranging ballads are eerily, deceptively delicate. Snatches work their way under your skin and re-emerge in dreams, balmy yet ominous. “Love’s Small Song”, for example, is the sort of thing you might expect to hear on the wind if you ever found yourself wondering the passages of an Elizabethan palace in the dead of night. “Black But Comely”, brimming with doomed elemental passion, is, like so many of Dee’s numbers, a torch-song of masochistic brilliance.
“I am less the writer of these songs than I am their unfit mother,” she writes in the album notes, hinting at the weight of experience from which they poured. The lyrics are vital to understanding her work but were ill-served by the venue’s acoustics on this occasion, at least for those of us at the back of the hall. Even so, their dark, brooding preoccupation with loss and ruin, studded with flashes of celestial hope and references to nature and the seasons, provided a compelling leitmotif.
The playing was sublime. Dee herself ambled between piano and harp – creating moments of broad comedy defined by some jaunty ‘travelling music’ courtesy of the Quartet – playing each with an absorbing delicacy. But perhaps the most exquisite moment of the evening was when she descended from the stage for a yearning accordion solo, gazing up into a spotlight: defiantly unclassifiable, away with the fairies, but a mesmerising class act.