After a five month absence from doing live reviews it was time to venture out in the post covid world and see what the future of gig going might be like. If you were going to start anywhere then the Bedford seemed to be as good as any, a venue with its high ceiling and plenty of space.
Of course there were a few differences from normal, even though it was free entry, tickets for this show had to be obtained and were duly snapped up within 24 hours , there were no walk up sales on the night, and on arrival you were escorted to your seat. Drinks and food were ordered from your seat and there were separate doors for coming in and out and that was about it. For anyone that knows the Bedford, it seemed that the same amount of round tables were there as normal though it must be said at no time did your humble reviewer feel that he was particularly close to anybody else. There was also no merchandise for sale, presumably to stop any unhealthy gathering around a merch table.
It was Claire Frances who had the joy of being first to fall under the #TEAMw21 microscope and for someone who at that moment in time had but one EP to her name, she managed to enthrall and entertain, her 40 minute set was far superior to the reception it seemed to receive, it was if the audience had forgotten or were not sure what to do on completion of a song.
A little pre show research on her "Sea Of Stars" EP had revealed a talent that was difficult to pin down , part pop, part folk, part introspective songwriter and on the night she managed to touch on all of those elements, all delivered with good humour which made her great company to resume live performances with.
The vagaries of traveling from North to South of the Thames meant that we arrived with Claire midway through her opening or second song "Let's Ruin The Friendship" which came with the notable couplet
"I've only good intentions, so give me your attention!".
Sat upon a tall stool, playing guitar, this somewhat intense tale of lust got things off to cracking start.
It was next to a song from the EP that had kept us entertained all afternoon, introduced as a "love song about a cloud", "Lonely Sky", was from the folkier end of her spectrum, Claire continued with "Catch A Snowflake", a little smile passing across her face as she sung the opening few lines "What is poetry?, I don't understand is it the sun on the sea or the sound of waves on the sand?" as she laid down a tale of heartbreak.
A quick Hozier cover of "Take Me To Church" worked out well and did not seem out of place before Claire, transferred from guitar to piano to make her live keyboard debut with "Almost Lover". A beautiful ballad, packed full of images, delivered to a gentle tune, this was something quite special. It was followed by a Lockdown original "For One Sweet Moment", dealing with forced separation, which was truly touching and saw Claire deliver a quality vocal to match.
A return to guitar saw Claire close out with the final two songs of the set, the first "Rabbitholes" her single released that day, had a somewhat dreamy feel for a song with a somewhat dark background to it. Closing with a song inspired by the same gent who had inspired "Catch A Snowflake", "Thank You and Goodbye" was a short and sweet farewell to both him and us, with lines like "you were once a reason to smile", it was by no means as bitter a goodbye as one might have expected. Claire is certainly someone to keep an eye on with lots of good musical ideas and a great stage presence.
Our first glimpse of Katie Kittermaster came about a year ago, on a showcase night at this very venue along with Tom Wright. That night she stood out and impressed with her confidence, her stage demeanour and the open honesty in her material. Since then she's been on major tours with Lucy Spraggan and Boyzlife and released an excellent debut ep with a further one scheduled for later in the year.
For tonights appearance she seemed to have kept the same guitarist, Dave Steele, and really very little else had changed except we got to spend 40 minutes in her company which was time exceedingly well spent. For those unaware of Katie she has a somewhat unique performing style, while in possession of a somewhat angelic voice,which she uses occasionally to its full effect, more often her delivery is a cross between singing and almost spoken. Her lyrical style is refreshingly open and honest and at times it is almost as if she is directly speaking to you relaying her story. The other thing is that she clearly loves playing live to an audience and must have found the 5 months of not being able to play unbearable.
Opening with "T Shirt", a couple of things immediately became apparent, those 2 UK tours had certainly helped her amass her own little fan base, and the Bedfords hope of enforcing a no singing environment had little chance of succeeding as Katie's admirers mouthed along to every word. She was confident that night a year ago , even memorably stopping the show to tie her laces, but tonight showed the stagecraft you pick up when performing so many shows and she simply exuded confidence ( despite protestations about being nervous ) even though this was also her first show in five months and her first ever headline performance.
Next was a new song, not even on the forthcoming EP, that in many ways sums up Katie's writing, in that it takes an everyday situation such as a Doctors appointment from which spins a boy meets girl story, the details within are revealed in a very conversational manner, even down to why she was at the surgery! The song "Origami Butterfly" manages to mix the mundane and the beautiful to make a little three minute drama that I'm sure Richard Curtis will be knocking up into a screenplay sometime soon. There are so many little details encapsulated in the three minutes as well a chorus that sees Katie have to work to squeeze in the 7 syllable title that you cannot help but be charmed by it - destined to be a single at some point, its universal appeal is testified to by the fact that Katie has since been presented with a number of origami butterfiles since she started performing it!
Another new song "Forgetting Me" puts into words, the fears being left behind after a life changing event such as leaving school where everyone goes their separate ways although the sentiments could equally be applied to leaving a job or moving house away from friends you've made. Displaying a myriad of expressions with her hands and face as she sung, Katie seemed to relive every line as she sung it. It was another special vocal performance especially when she let her voice soar up through the chorus. She seemed a little bemused by how quiet the audience were at the end of the song but it seemed as though they were just hanging on to each line to find out what happened next.
An unlikely cover followed in the shape of Abba's "The Winner Takes it All", the masters of hiding some dark subject matter within a divine melody, not many would come up iwth lines as poignant as
The gods may throw a dice their minds as cold as ice, and someone way down here loses someone dear".
It also saw a rare outing for Katie playing guitar, a fact that became evident when she failed to plug it in!, but once set up, the "random choice", one of Katie's favourites was delivered with some style, in many ways it was the perfect song for Katie as Agnetha's vocal on the record are spoken at first and it is very much a song in her own style, and it was a pleasure to see her really go for the chorus.
A trip back to the "Coming Home At Dawn" EP followed with "Sunny Afternoon", one of the songs that originally charmed us, this time with her fans singing along with every word as well as supplying backing vocals at the required time.
The final batch of songs were mainly given over to songs that will feature on the new EP, the first being "She Should Be Here", the tale of a friendship gone wrong, although for this one, the subject of the song was actually in the audience, so all eventually ended well.
A final new song was unveiled in the shape of "It's Not Just You", once again taking her most personal of feelings and sharing them with the world, knowing that others will recognize themselves in the lyrics and hopefully find solace.
From the new EP "The Problem", revealed itself as another personal song where "Maybe I'm" could easily find its way ahead of the title in brackets..
It came with an uptempo chorus where the "Maybe I'm"s were repeated like a dance track.
Closing out the show was the single that would be made available at midnight, "One Of A Kind", which had an interesting theme set to an upbeat tune and saw Katie receive a huge round of applause on its completion.
This was an excellent return to live reviewing, with two compelling performances in a venue able to separate out its audience. Even from this one show though it is plain to see that difficult times lay ahead once winter comes.
Tonight had a vitality and an immediacy about it that live streams just cannot recreate, the banter and the sheer joy of hearing people clapping and singing along just cannot be recreated when you are sitting at home disconnected from the event. Let's hope this is just the first step on the road back to normality, but don't be surprised if that road provides a few bumps along the way.