Bedecked all Christmaslike, the festive season adding an extra tint to the glam aspirations the venue, Brighton’s Sussex Arts Club played a welcome host to the Brighton’s Finest Songbirds Christmas Special. Due to the unavailability of billed support act Jane Bartholomew the night kicked off with the middle act songbird Cordelia Fellowes, who was quick to point out that her set was not in fact her set but a performance of a band of which she is just one part. She is undoubtedly the frontwoman of her group though, the Gypsy Squat Pop Project, as her stong voice and presence powerfully leads the songs forward.
The bareness of the instrumentation draws attention to the strength of the voice and the harmonies standing equally strong behind it.
The boho look of the group fits their name, along with the lyrics but this is an interesting opposition to the sound of the majority of their material. Songs about drug benders and asshole ex-boyfriends are fantastically casual and frank, offering an impression of three people that like to spend their time hanging out, getting wasted and not worrying too much about things (until the next, afternoon?) but the music these tales are set to is not the free folk of travellers and festival campfires, or the psy-trance, dubstep or gabba of free parties, it is perhaps Gypsy-like when the accordian hints at a Balkan blues but mostly it is female singer-songwriter blues, or blues of a light, jazzy cocktail feel, aided mostly by the smoothness and feeling in the alternatingly soft/snarling vocals. The bareness of the instrumentation — just acoustic guitar and accordian — draws attention to the strength of the voice and the harmonies standing equally strong behind it. The storytelling quality adds a warmth to the mood of the songs and coupled with the group’s large but not imposing presence, particularly in their talkative nature (most notably about how Cordelia loved her boyfriend and that the wanker she was just singing about from her past was just that, a wanker, from her past, and also how they had left their setlist off stage and were therefore feeling their way around the set blindly), creates a very endearing whole. Those intrigued by the name should investigate, it may not be what you’d imagine, but it is a good thing.
Headline act Shona Foster continued to spin out the laid-back jazz/blues thread which was very distinct in the opening act, but twisted it up with a few other things, and with a different approach. Where part of the appeal of the previous act was in the friendly hint of disorganisation, Shona Foster and her band were particularly tight and orchestrated.
just as the voice can fade to nothing it can switch the other way to a powerful sharpness
Foster is essentially a singer-songwriter in the trend that you would identify as being of origin in sixties icons like Joni Mitchell and Carole King — the Joni Mitchell comparison here not being just a lazy one but pertinent to both the sound and way that the vocals effortless leap up to great heights from nowhere, the feeling perhaps felt most on the encore played with stripped-down accompaniment, just a piano alongside the vocals and acousitic guitar. The songs aren’t straightforward singer-songwriter ballads though, with an influence of jazz greats like Billie Holliday and Nina Simone identifiable in the relaxed mood and musical progressions. There is an emotion, and a darkness within the mood though, with the soft schizophrenia of artists like Alison Goldfrapp, Beth Gibbons and notably Tori Amos — just as the voice can fade to nothing it can switch the other way to a powerful sharpness.
The full band also comprises bass, percussion and is embellished by the orchestrations of violins and oboe and, as previously mentioned, the group perform the songs incredibly tightly and well, as the songs move from light backgrounds, to sweepings and walking bass into stiff, staccato accompaniments, all giving the voice a healthy board from which to spring. The set is a very accomplished performance, rousing and imbuing the crowd with enthusiasm, and fitting nicely in with the candlelight glamour of the surrounding venue.