Manchester’s hidden gem of a venue, the faded-glory Dancehouse, was witness to the brief, passing visit of a talented young lady from Tyneside. While it is in need of a lick of paint and has the presence of a music hall in Krakow or Vilnius it possesses a big stage and, once the little chandelier ball lights go down, a welcoming atmosphere.
Brooke Bentham needed one. She described herself as “fried”, having only just arrived at the end of an eight-hour journey from London, to where, for some unexplained reason, she was heading straight back after the show. It reminded the reviewer of a 90-minute delayed gig performed by Lissie at the Academy in December 2015, which followed an 11-hour rail trip from Edinburgh through the worst of Storm Desmond on three trains, the latter two of which had no working toilet. Her professionalism was absolute as she delivered a shortened but cracking set. Could Brooke rise to a similar though less daunting challenge in a brief six-song set?
To be fair she did, though she was a little nervous and hesitant at first.
The now London-based singer-songwriter, who was influenced by Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and latterly Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, has had a momentous few months, signing a record deal (Believe Recordings) and recording a debut EP in tandem with her university graduation year. Critics have been quick to point to the quality of her voice, comparing her to Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, and the way she can produce a powerful set of notes out of a softly-sung ballad suddenly and dramatically was soon evident tonight.
Most of her songs to date can be broadly classified as folk ballads, such as ‘Need Your Body’ and what is probably her best known song, ‘Oliver’, both of which got an airing. What is perhaps not quite so well developed yet is her ability on the guitar, which was noticeable for two reasons; firstly because she was playing solo while her recorded efforts are multi-instrumental, and secondly because she was always going to be in the shadow of the virtuoso performer she was supporting, John Smith.
The most anticipated song of her performance was her most recent single, ‘Heavy and Ephemeral,’ which some of the audience recognised and in which the tone is quite different. Gone is the somewhat morose timbre of ‘Oliver’, to be replaced by a soaring alt-rock anthem, underscored on the recorded version by a strong and catchy synth hook, driving percussion and, if you listen carefully, a pretty handy piece of piano elaboration. Even without that embellishment, with only her guitar for company, Brooke made a good fist of delivering the song, wetting the audience’s appetite for the full-blown version next time she is in town, hopefully with a band.
Both ‘Oliver’ and ‘Heavy and Ephemeral’ have real quality, whilst being so dissimilar that they could be the product of separate artists, and that’s a rare talent.
Part way through the set she threw in a cover of Radiohead’s ‘House of Cards’, which again she made quite a good job of, but the reason offered was a strange one; namely that as the audience didn’t know her it was a song they’d be comfortable with. It’s unlikely that more than a handful of the audience was cognisant with Radiohead, let alone that particular track. While she possibly has only a limited amount of material at present perhaps a rendition of a well-known indie-folk song by another solo performer might have been more appropriate. Cohen or Mitchell?
All-in-all, given the circumstances and that this was her first proper tour, Brooke demonstrated that she has the ability to make a name for herself in the music world and that we will be hearing much more of her in the future.
She will have learned a lot from John Smith, whom she was supporting on this tour. He is one of the most accomplished all-round entertainers on the circuit; an excellent indie-folk songwriter, singer and guitarist and master of open tuning. Moreover, he’s almost a one man vaudeville show whose own performing name is a parody, with his stories about the world shortage of bongo and maracas players; making hundreds of thousands of pennies out of Spotify; writing a song for Lisa Hannigan, forgetting he had, then asking her if he could cover it; and receiving crates of Guinness on his rider when all he asked for was four cans.
If she didn’t she’ll only have herself to blame.