There was a moment in the closing encore ‘Swell Does the Skull’, when Aldous Harding sings “I don’t want to be a sinner,” that the brain, ever alert for double meanings and enigmatic obliquities, decides that she is really stating “I don’t want to be a singer.” And it’s true that over the previous hour or so’s performance, Harding had certainly at times given the impression of one who would rather be doing something else. And performance it was – with a fixed tour set list and even more so a fixed stage presence, even her obscure inter-song asides were maintained night after night. It was, though, a performance that begged the question: “If one is going to adopt and maintain an on-stage demeanour, why would one pick this on-stage demeanour?”
The anticipation had been particularly high. This was a tour that had been rescheduled multiple times through the pandemic years, to the extent that if it had gone ahead at its original date it would likely have featured far more of the dreamy and, arguably, more upbeat songs from ‘Designer‘ rather than the somewhat darker and introspective songs of the new album ‘Warm Chris‘. And as Harding is known for her dramatic video presentations of her songs (leading to a shorthand, but dubiously accurate, description as an indie-folk Kate Bush) there was perhaps an expectation of a striking visual aspect to the gig. An expectation somewhat undercut when Harding took the stage slightly behind her band who’d formed a crescent behind her centre stage microphone, dressed in a muted outfit somewhat reminiscent of oversized scrubs, and exhibiting a stage personality we’d come to know well as the evening progressed. Hair tied back in a tight ponytail, and with a quizzical expression she looked out at the audience as if surprised by our presence. She moved around the stage in almost slow motion, when, throughout the gig, she encountered her instruments, it was as if they were rank strangers to her. With gestures suggesting a questioning “what is this thing you are giving me?” she would receive a guitar, which she would later claim, as she does every night, to have found in a river. Her demeanour suggested a confused waif, no more so than when moving a chair around the stage she dragged it back to one side making, of course, an unpleasant jarring noise – the accompanying brief smirk conveyed nothing more than a petulant child: we’ve all met toddlers like this.
Between all this stage business there was the not-so-small matter of the music side of the evening. And this was very much the ying to that endless yang. Opening with ‘Ennui‘, the first of the night’s nine songs from ‘Warm Chris’, got the proceedings off on the right track – not for nothing is this the opening song of the latest album as it blends a weary philosophy with a slow funky beat leaving it floating in a very dream-like space. The vocals seemed a little low in the mix, a problem resolved on ‘Tick-Tock‘ which is distinguished by its counter-melody of “wrong” notes and the strangely appropriate questioning of “Now that you see me what you going to do? Wanted to see me.” The sung standing ‘Fever‘ introduces a detached passion into the proceedings – the thrill of entanglements undercut by the dual confession that “All my favourite places are bars” and “My favourite place is the start.”
It’s a very intense performance which invites close and silent attention – so much so that the slightest inappropriately placed audience laughter or accidentally knocked over glass full of ice – seems jarring. There was a tangible sense of relief when “the big hit” arrived in the form of ‘The Barrel‘ with its elusive metaphors and its box full of hooks. It had followed on from a lovely ‘Staring at the Henry Moore‘ which was delivered in a breathless quiet voice reminiscent of Vashti Bunyan – with the occasional vocal squawk asides maintaining the unexpectedness one expects from Harding. One of the distinctive features that Harding brings to her music is the vocal fluidity of her singing – subdued folky, artless ingenue, knowing-wink rocker, the last most present on the set closer ‘Leathery Whip‘ which puts forward a suggestion that life is out to beat you, one way or another, and then subverts the thought with swelling church-organ like keyboard lines that hint at a more optimistic point of view. Suffice to say that the mystery of Aldous Harding had been both presented and maintained intact. Her occasional spoken interjections to thank us for letting her do things “My way” served only to beg the question “Did we have a choice?”
Support came from Aldous Harding band member and partner H. Hawkline whose music is curiously similar to the headliners in the sense that it is somewhat oblique in nature. He may sing of feeling “Like a nun picking roses” or he may comment that “This milk is too warm for the night” and the sense is of a poem randomly arranged. As clear or as unclear as his self-introduction, he’s 38, right-handed and has spent a lot of time in Prestatyn. All true – well, perhaps – but knowing this, as he reflects, doesn’t really tell anyone anything.
Accompanying himself on guitar and with a backing track on a reel-to-reel tape machine – which ensures he runs to time – H. Hawkline runs a gamut of folk-flecked, new-wavey stompy and, occasionally, Beatle like psychedelia. His final song, sung while wandering the stage, microphone in hand, has a slight Scritti Politti feel to it, although as he sings “I don’t want to be the last thing on my mind” there’s also a hint of Scott Walker…or even Morrissey. A suitable scene setter for Aldous Harding.